Reflections on Faith and Religion

In 1997 I left the world of Catholic priesthood and made the decision to get married. It's been the singular best decision I've ever made, but it meant that I went from behind the altar to sitting in the pew. It also meant that instead of writing and preaching homilies, I now would listen to others.

Since then I've been generally unsatisfied with what I've heard. I'll be the first to say that I'm a tough audience. I don't expect every homily to be earth shattering, but I do expect to see the fruit of some hard work. The process of leaving ordained ministry meant I now work a 40 hour week and balance family life. It also means I have to be aware of the need to save for retirement and knowing my job is never entirely safe.

I expect that the weekly homily will weave the readings into my life. In the words of Karl Barth (1886-1968) the preacher should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I hate to say this, but lately I've found this not happening. It's not so much that I've heard bad preaching, but lazy preaching. I've been hearing homilies that either retell the gospel or devolve into the same few themes: the need for obedience, the perils of our God forsaken world, etc. Or even worse, I get the idea that the preacher starts talking in the hope that a good homily will eventually come out. I'm writing this blog to write the homily I wanted to hear. I hope it serves you well.

If this strikes a note with you, please feel free to email me. Also, if you wish, I can email you the readings and my homily each week.

Links to the Readings

July 14, 2013

July 21, 2013

July 28, 2013

August 4, 2013

August 11, 2013

August 18, 2013

August 25, 2013

September 1, 2013

September 8, 2013

September 15, 2013

September 22, 2013

September 29, 2013

October 6, 2013

October 13, 2013

October 20, 2013

October 27, 2013

November 3, 2013

November 10, 2013

November 17, 2013

November 24, 2013

December 1, 2013

December 8, 2013

December 15, 2013

December 22, 2013

December 25, 2013

December 29, 2013

December 29, 2013: The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes (again) from Sirach, one of the books recognized in Catholic bibles but not in Protestant Bibles. Here the writer is counseling his readers to love and respect their parents, promising that those who respect their parents will be blessed with children. It also commands sons to support their fathers, "even if his mind should fail." This is perhaps the first mention of dementia in Scripture. Matthew's gospel recounts the events after the visit by the wise men. Joseph is told by an angel that Herod is killing all the male infants and Jesus is in great danger. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus heed this warning and flee to Egypt until Herod dies. When they return they settle in Nazareth.

This feast of the holy family has always puzzled me. When I was growing up the holy family was held up as the standard for all families: we should all look this way. Catholic school children of last century remember putting "JMJ" on top of their assignments to signify "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph." This was against the backdrop of the TV series The Brady Bunch where 6 children lived in harmony in two bedrooms and one bathroom. In comparison all the families I saw lived with some level of discord and conflict. A few years later I first learned the concept "dysfunctional family" and realized that I had never (and still haven't) met a fully functional family. All families love, and fight, and resent, and forgive.

But we were all held against the standard of the manger scene which is not even described in this reading. The family we see here is one we would hardly recognize: an infant, a single mother, and her fiance, fleeing for their lives. They are far from the idea of the perfect and safe family: they are political refugees.

So did they ever fight? Was Jesus the perfect child that never gave his parents any cause of worry? We know almost nothing of his early life, but we do know this isn't true. At the end of the second chapter of Luke's Gospel we find Jesus wandering away from Joseph and Mary. When they found him in the temple and told him how worried they were, Jesus appeared puzzled by their concern. I think we can all picture the precocious child who says, "I wasn't lost. I knew where I was all the time." As an adult, Jesus and Mary attend a wedding in Cana (that we read about in the second chapter of John's Gospel). When the host runs out of wine and faces humiliation, Mary tells Jesus about it. Jesus' response is: "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?" Now stop and imagine what would have happend if, even as an adult, you said that to your mother.

So if the holy family wasn't the stuff of a Norman Rockwell painting, and they were not immune to the conflict all families face, what makes them holy? I suggest that what makes the holy family the holy family is that they loved each other not in the absence of conflict or trouble, but that they loved each other through the conflict or trouble. Jesus certainly didn't start off a life of luxury and the circumstances of their fleeing and exile, we can only imagine, put strains on all of them. At some point Joseph disappears from Jesus' life and we assume he died before Jesus started his public ministry, but he and Mary stayed with each other, even to the cross. Perhaps that fidelity is what we are called to strive for.

But just as that fidelity wasn't easy in Jesus' time, it isn't easy now either. Most of us don't live with the fear of losing someone to a simple infection, but we do see families torn apart by geography or finances, or abuse. We have foster homes, group homes, transitional homes, residential facilities and the lot for when families break down. We also have families torn apart by hypocrisy. In the last several years we have seen politicians and other leaders proclaim what they call "family values" while they are carrying on affairs, texting scandalous pictures of themselves, or deciding that their current spouse needs to go because "she makes me feel old."

In dealing with the whole spectrum of families in my hospice work I've often said that family can be as much about decision as biology. The late author Lew Smedes in his excellent book Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don't Deserve commented on this in his own family. He and his wife adopted their children and he noted that there was no biological link between any of them. Lew and his wife formed a family by first choosing each other, and then choosing their children. Does that make them less a family? Of course not.

I know this may be difficult for some to accept, but the gay community will often refer to each other as family, as in: "Oh yeah, he's family." That may offend those who demand a rigid and exclusionary concept of family, but I think their point is well taken. Many of them, in accepting their orientation, have found themselves alienated from their family of origin. Some have suffered even banishment and are told they are no longer welcome. When they gather into other communities that do accept them for who they are, does it surprise anyone that they refer to that community as family? Far from denigrating the term family, I think they are holding as something holy. They have found a community where they can live and love, where they can be who they are and be accepted for it. And they have found that the word "community" doesn't speak fully to their relationship, but "family" does.

And perhaps that's what family means: a community of love. Many of us are blessed to have found that love and acceptance into the family we were born into. Our families gave us the love we needed to grow up and expand our own families with spouses and children of our own. But for those who were not so fortunate, I suggest that we expand our idea of family to include those who had to take a different path. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph did not fit the strict idea of a biological family that stayed in one place for their entire lives, but they were no less a holy family because of it. Over two thousand years later I believe we are called to that same fidelity and creativity. I believe we are called to see family in terms of love and commitment even when another family doesn't look like ours or our ideal.

And yes, that means we sometimes have to live with the uncomfortable need to grow. When I was a child the Supreme Court ruled that my state (Virginia) could no longer refuse to grant marriage licenses to interracial couples. The opponents claimed that an interracial couple was not a family, and now nearly everyone sees that as bigotry. We are today faced with the challenge of homosexual couples and their desire to be recognized as families. I pray we can call out the same bigotry.

December 25, 2013: Christmas: Mass at Midnight

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: There are four masses for Christmas: Vigil, Midnight, Dawn, and During the Day. I’ve chosen to preach on the readings for the Mass at Midnight, for no other reason that they are my favorite. The first reading from Isaiah uses imagery of light out of darkness. He also speaks of a child being born who will be Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. The Gospel is from Luke and it is one of the most evocative images. If you’ve ever watched The Charlie Brown Christmas, this is the account Linus gives when on stage.

And now it’s finally arrived: we’ve made it through Black Friday, doorbusters, endless traffic jams at the malls, competition for the hot new gift, and, and, and, the Season of Advent. The Messiah whose coming we have been awaiting is now here. But how can we tell? This newborn baby looks like the rest of us, born in a barn, and with uncertain parentage. Is this Jesus really the Messiah? Wonder Counselor? God Hero? Father Forever? Prince of Peace? I have to tell you, this is a little disappointment. Is this really how God meant to bring his Son into the world? Me, I’d make a bigger entrance.

Well, that’s probably another good reason that I’m not God. It’s been kind of a theme for me, but when we talk about Salvation through Jesus Christ it’s much more than we can imagine. The Jews of Jesus’ time were, frankly, looking for a military leader who would defeat the Romans occupiers.

But God had bigger plans for us. He sent us a Messiah who is much more than a military leader, he sent us Jesus who was both God and Human, both Divine and Corporeal. He sent us a Messiah who could not only bring us the Truth of Salvation, he could also experience and celebrate our own experience.

We can look on this helpless baby, this bundle who cannot walk or talk, as something small and inconsequential. Or we can look at this baby through God's eyes: as someone who will become the One who conquered death. OK, let's face it: we all love babies. We love them not for what they can do, but for who they are. We love babies because we love the fact that we can care for those who are helpless and we know they will grow with the potential to do great things. We know that this bundle of joy may one day be an Albert Einstein or a Martin Luther King or a Nelson Mandela. And even if this bundle doesn't do that, he or she will become a person we will continue to love. He or she will grow up and be a husband or wife, a mother or father, a coworker or entrepreneur. A good friend and neighbor, a confident and good listener. A great bowling partner or copilot. The man or woman who teaches history or soccer, the person who throws the incredible curve or finds a way to finally explain trigonometry.

When I look at Jesus as an infant, I like to think that we get a glimpse of how we all look to God. Only God knows our potential, and let's face it: we don't know our own potential, let alone that of others. We are not given that gift.

But we are given the gift to do what this infant in the manger does: we can see hints of the gifts of others. Just as Jesus was able to look at lepers and strangers and the outcast and say "You are just as wonderful as anyone and you belong with us" we can do the same.

When Pope Francis chose to celebrate his 77th birthday with the homeless, I think he understood exactly what Jesus had in mind when He decided to redeem the world. We may look on them as homeless, as those who are there because of their own bad choices, but Pope Francis chose to look on them as exactly the people Jesus did.

When I look on Jesus as an infant, I'm struck by how he needed those around him. Not only Joseph and Mary, who gave him the nutrition and love every human needs, but even the farm animals who gave up their feeding trough so he would have a place to sleep. I look at the shepherds who were consoled by the angel. These were not great men: they were looked down upon because the violated the Sabbath by watching over their flocks by night. They didn't provide anything physical to Jesus but in their prayers they recognized that much like their lambs, this baby would grow into something they needed. Their humility game them the eyes to see the Truth.

And now, over two thousand years later, we still need to be in that manger scene. We often fool ourselves into thinking that we are self sufficient and that what we have is a result of what we've done. We may have done great things, but this night we celebrate that they pale in comparison to what was done long ago and far away. We need to understand again that the thin, reedy voice of an infant blows into our world the very breath of Heaven.

December 22, 2013: The Fourth Sunday of Advent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the 7th Chapter of Isaiah. Here God promises that a virgin will give birth to a child who will be called Emmanuel which means God-is-with-us. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus' birth is described. Joseph finds out that his fiance Mary is pregnant, and not wishing to publicly shame her, decides to quietly divorce her. An angel appears and tells him that his child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel instructs him to stay with Mary and name the child Jesus; then the angel recalls the prophecy in Isaiah (that we read in the first reading).

I'll state this bluntly: these readings trouble me because of some of the things I've read recently and can't get out of my head. If you find what I've written here troubling to you, please don't feel that you need to continue or agree with me.

At first glance this seems like the job of preaching these readings should be easy. Even Matthew is in on it by quoting Isaiah's prophecy. The accounts of the birth of Jesus are some of the most evocative in the Bible. Ever since St. Francis 800 years ago we've all been putting manger scenes in our homes and public places. School children as young as kindergarden put on plays that recreate these scenes. Given that we've all had these images in our heads for as long as we can remember, I recognize that I'm treading into dangerous territory by looking more closely. But that's what I'm going to do.

Of the four gospels, only Matthew and Luke even discuss Jesus birth and early life, and our image of the baby and child Jesus are a mishmash of events from both Gospels. Joseph and his fiance Mary must travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to participate in a census (Luke), but Joseph finds Mary pregnant and decides to divorce her until an angel comes to him (Matthew). Once in Bethlehem they stay in a barn because there is no room in the inn (Luke). Magicians from the East see an odd alignment in the stars and ask Herod about this and come and pay homage to Jesus (Matthew). Meanwhile shepherds are keeping watch over their flocks and see an angel who tells them that a Savoir has been born (Luke).

Not long ago I was reading some material by the theologian Amy-Jill Levine and she raised a difficult issue for me. As background she explained that Matthew wrote his Gospel specifically for the Jews of his time (he wrote it about 40 years after Jesus). He wanted them to understand that Jesus was the Messiah they have been waiting for, and his writing is filled to the brim with references from the Old Testament. It as if Matthew is saying: "Wake up everyone! The Messiah has already come and we need to follow Him!" The problem is that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and by Jesus time it had been translated to Greek (it was called the "Septuagint" because there were 70 books; it's sometimes abbreviated LXX). Matthew, in his zeal to show the Old Testament prophecies have been fulfilled, may have been reading an unclear translation of the word "virgin." The word that Isaiah uses in Hebrew was "almah" and we would translate it "young woman," but not necessarily a virgin. When the Hebrew was translated into Greek, "almah" became "parthenos" which does mean virgin. Virtually from Jesus own time we've believed that Joseph was not Jesus' biological father and by 300 years after Jesus birth there was the belief in some circles that Mary became pregnant by a Roman soldier named Panthera. I can well imagine that Matthew, scouring the Old Testament, sees this prophecy and says: "See, here Isaiah foretells something impossible for humans. It must have been Divine."

But what if it's not? What if Isaiah had no intention of proclaiming a miracle, and was simply foretelling a Messiah? Can we still believe in Jesus if Matthew got it wrong? And if he did, does that mean the Bible is not inspired?

There are other troubling parts to this story. There was some controversy this past summer over the book Zealot by Reza Aslan. Frankly I found it well written and informative and recommend it. In the book he spoke about the account in Luke of Joseph and Mary travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census. He acknowledges that one of the problems Jesus faced was that he was from Nazareth, not Bethlehem as Isaiah predicted. But he said according to Roman records (and they recorded everything), there was no census as Luke described. He also questioned why Joseph would have to travel, as the purpose of a census is to collect taxes and we shouldn't care where someone is from. As for me, I was born in Washington DC, my father in Massachusetts, and my grandfather in Canada. Where would I go to be counted? Aslan suggests that Matthew tells this story as a way of explaining how Jesus of Nazareth could have fulfilled the prophecy by being born in Bethlehem.

So let me ask this again: if these suggestions are true, is Jesus still the Messiah, and are we still Christians? If some of this is not factually correct, can we be sure any of it is? Well, I think so, and let me expand a little on this.

As Paul states again and again, what makes Jesus our Savoir is that he rose from the dead. I doubt he was ever asked (and Paul wrote almost nothing on the life of Jesus), but Paul would probably look at this and say we are missing the point. The point isn't where Jesus was born or whether pathenos is an accurate translation of almah. The point is that when Jesus was executed by the Romans, he defeated death for Himself and for all of us. If we find that Jesus was born in Nazareth and his conception was purely human, then nothing has changed. He is still our Savoir.

I think this also brings us back to the question of how we see Scripture. Early in his papacy, John Paul II was asked about Genesis. He was being goaded into a discussion of Evolution vs. Creationism. He wisely refused to take the bait. He explained that the purpose of Genesis was not to explain the "how" of creation, but the "why." In other words, he suggested that our faith should not depend on whether we believe science or the Bible. We should believe both. It's become a divisive issue for many of our fundamentalist Christian brothers and sisters, but it shouldn't.

The purpose of Scripture is not to give us a fact based account of what happened; it's more than that. It is a collection of stories, myths, memories, and dreams written by men and women who were coming to grips with the question of how we got here and what we should do about it.

As Christians I believe we called to see Scripture as infallible in issues of faith and morals, but not fact. There are too many internal contradictions that we would have to overlook (my best example: both Matthew and Luke give us genealogies of Jesus and they don't agree. In Matthew, Joseph's father was Jacob. In Luke, Joseph's father is Heli).

I suggest that we stop chasing after archeological "proof" of Noah's Ark, because if it didn't happen, it doesn't negate the existence of God. If Abram left the land of Ur for financial reasons, that doesn't mean God's hand wasn't in it. If Exodus was a slave uprising, that doesn't mean God didn't hear the cry of the poor.

I'm not a fundamentalist for two reasons: I find it too exhausting and too childlike. I find it exhausting when I have to conjure up some reason to explain how (for example) Noah was able to find two mosquitos, or two penguins when they lived nowhere near Noah. I find it too childlike because it forces me to ignore what I see in front of me.

And no, I'm not suggesting that we get rid of our manger scenes (my wife Nancy collects them and would not welcome that suggestion). They evoke for us a time when our Savoir had to depend on Mary and Joseph to feed him and care for his needs. I like that. I look at the infant Jesus (even though most manger scenes depict him as been about 12 months old) and recognize that our Salvation has come not through something big, but something small. A baby will grow to a man and he will conquer death, and do it for all of us.

December 15, 2013: The Third Sunday of Advent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading continues the prophecy of the coming Messiah. This reading concentrates more on individual healing, that the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the tongues of the dumb shall shout for joy. In Matthew's Gospel John the Baptist speaks from prison and asks if Jesus is the Messiah or do we need to coninue to wait. Jesus responds that the blind see again and that the dead are raised to life. After word is sent back to John, Jesus speaks to the crowd of those who sought out John in the desert. He reminds them that John's followers did not seek a meek man in fine clothing. He then affirms that John is the one the Old Testament speaks of as the messanger to prepare a way. Finally Jesus states that there is no human greater than John, but that the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.

The readings this week continue much of the same themes as last week; hopefully I'll avoid the temptation to rerun last week's themes.

Isaiah's reading puts a finer point on the One to Come. Last week he spoke more about justice, that all who seek justice will find it. Here Isaiah talks on a much more individual level. He counsels all to show courage and keep faith, and the blind will see again. Not only that, but the deaf will hear and the dumb (mute) will shout for joy. Oftentimes in Scripture physical cures are seen more broadly. Blindness, for instance, can be physical blindness, but it's also the inability to understand a larger reaity. In the same way, a mute can be someone who does not have the ability to speak up. When this passage was written, the Isaraelites were in exile in Babylon; as exiles their world was much more restrictive and they lost much of their power of self determination

There are several parallels between the Israelites in exile and the followers of Jesus under Roman rule. But in a funny way, as the followers of Jesus read these passages from Isaiah, it became easy for them to take the obvious but erroneous road. After Isaiah's writing, the Israelites were indeed liberated. The Babylonians, their captors, were themselves conquered by the Persians who allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem. It's easy to see how John the Bpatist and others expected Jesus to do the same thing, and have some concern that he hasn't, and doesn't appear to be planning to.

As we saw from the beginning of the Gospel, John in now in prison, almost certainly for his teachings in the desert. He and Jesus are cousins, and while we can easily think he and Jesus grew up together and were close, there's no documentation of this. There's no reason to assume that John even knew the Messiah he proclaimed was Jesus. When he asked if Jesus was the One, it's a fair question.

And the answer Jesus gives is almost right out of Isaiah: the blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life. I have this vision of Jesus saying: "What do you want out of me?" Jesus then shows that while he may not be what John is looking for, John himself wasn't what many were looking for. The idea of having someone proclaim, as John did, that we need to prepare for the Messiah, brings with it images of someone important, or at least important looking. The ones who found John were not blind: they found John as the crazy guy in the desert. They moved beyond their expectations and images; they didn't see with their eyes, but with their hearts.

Given that, it's perhaps a little disturbing that John had his doubts about Jesus. But I also think that's something pretty common for us. We make a life changing decision, get just a few feet beyond the point of no return, and begin to rethink our decision. We also need to remember that Jesus was hardly the only person at that time claiming to be the Messiah.

In the final analysis Jesus is asking us to move beyond our blindness and deafness. He is asking us to open our eyes and ears, not to what we want or dream, no matter how heartfelt or desperate. Jesus is offering much more than liberation from Rome. As I spoke about last week, we often miss the mark not because we ask too much, but we expect too little. We want liberation and Jesus offers us salvation. Had Jesus only overthrown Rome and returned the Israelites to self determination, he would not be our salvation. Oppressors come and go, lands get conquered and reconquered, sufferings increase and decrease, and if that's all we ask of Jesus, we've really settled for too little.

The reason we continue to celebrate Advent, the reason we continue to celebrate Christmas, the reason we still worship Jesus is because he didn't settle. He didn't settle for what we said we wanted. He didn't settle for what would have been "good enough" for John and the other disciples. He offered us forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life at a time when we couldn't see beyond our immediate list of problems.

This isn't to diminish those things that we want, or make us feel guilty for asking for small things. We should still strive for justice and ask for the things we need. But we lose out when we get so caught up seeing with our own eyes and hearing with our own ears that we don't think there is anything beyond. Jesus offers us the opportunity to see with the new eyes of salvation. If it means anything, it should mean we take the long view of things.

I write this against the backdrop of Nelson Mandela's death. He didn't often talk about his faith but he was baptized Methodist and his views on forgiveness tell me that he did have the eyes and ears of faith. After 27 years in prison for his struggle for justice, he spent the rest of his life in healing and reconciliation. Few people had more cause for anger and the desire for revenge, and nobody would have blamed him if he wanted to "stick it to those who stuck it to him." But he didn't. I like to think that his desire for justice for himself translated into justice for everyone, including his captors.

Let us take this to heart as we continue our Advent journey.

December 8, 2013: The Second Sunday of Advent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading continues the prophesies of Isaiah. Here Isaiah speaks of one to come who will not judge by human standards. Instead he will "judge the wretched with integrity and with equity gives a verdict for the poor of the land." It goes on to say that "the wolf lives with the lamb." In Matthew's Gospel we see John the Baptist quoting Isaiah and baptizing people. When he saw a number of Pharisees he called them a brood of vipers. He finishes by proclaiming that one will come behind him that will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.

So what kind of Messiah are you looking for? If you're scanning applications and resumes, what do you want? This isn't as silly a question as it sounds. If you're familiar with 12 Step/Alcoholics Anonymous spirituality you probably know where I'm going with this. When someone first approaches the program and is told that dependence on a "Higher Power" is a cornerstone of the program, many want to run away. Often they grew up in a religion that portrayed God as angry, or (worse) detached from their lives. They are told to "start over" and imagine the kind of Higher Power that will help them stay sober. More often than not they imagine a Higher Power that will love them unconditionally. They haven't changed God, they've changed their image of God.

The early Israelites came to the idea of a Messiah far from their beginning. The idea of waiting for a Messiah, or an "anointed one" comes through most clearly in the prophets: Isaiah, Ezekiel, and others. They looked forward to One (not necessarily God) who will come and fix everything, and make everything better.

But here's the rub: we all want something different fixed. A poor person wants wealth, a sick person wants health, and an oppressed person wants liberation. And to be frank, a rich and powerful person wants to be told his wealth and power have been earned.

The Messiah that Isaiah speaks of is one who fixes injustice. The desire for justice is something that all of us have sought from our earliest days. We all want to be dealt with justly, and in our hearts I believe most of us want to act with justice. But we’ve struggled from the beginning over what to do with those who don’t act with justice. How do we rebalance the scales of justice? Isaiah’s audience consisted of a large group who were struggling to remain a nation among rivals and they lived with (as do we) large disparities of wealth.

As disciples of Jesus we see these readings through the lens of foretelling the salvation through Jesus. That would have been puzzling to Isaiah's audience as they imagined an ordinary person who was anointed by God. They would not have imagined Jesus who was both divine and human. They would not have imagined someone who would deliver salvation when they were looking for wealth, health, or liberation.

If there is anything we can say about Jesus we can say this: He spent his earthly life giving us much more than we expect or even imagine. John, our "wildman in the desert," proclaims repentence of sins, but also something much more. He tells us of the one who will follow, one whose sandals John is not fit to carry. This one who will follow, that we now know to be his cousin Jesus, will have the power not only in this life, but in the next. I wonder sometimes if anyone was really listening to John here.

December 1, 2013: The First Sunday of Advent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the beginning of the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah. Here Isaiah speaks of a time where God will proclaim His justice to all nations. It will be a time where nations will no longer go to war against each other, where the people will beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. It is seen to Christians as foretelling the coming of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus speaks of a time where the “Son of Man” will come without warning. He advises his disciples to be ready for this at any time.

I wrote the synopses of the readings even though I won’t be preaching on them today. They are important readings, but their themes will continue for the next 4 weeks of Advent in preparation for Christmas. Instead I want to recount an event that I often reflect on when I think about the season of Advent.

Several years ago I completed a retreat at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Gloucester, Massachusetts. It was a good retreat but I had trouble sleeping on the last night and woke up about an hour before sunrise. I remembered that the dining room had huge floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean and I thought it might be fun to watch the sunrise. When I got to the dining room I saw that there were about six other people with the same idea. I took my seat and was struck by the fact that while we all knew each other was there, nobody spoke. It was as if this was not a time for conversation but silence. Not for looking at each other but for all of us looking in the same direction.

At first there wasn’t much to look at. It was still nighttime and the sky was black; it was truly the darkest before the dawn. No matter, we all watched. After several minutes we noticed, almost imperceptibly, that we could begin to notice the beginnings of the horizon. The very bottom of the sky, where it meets the ocean, was just starting to turn from black to the deepest violet. It was almost as if the narrow band of violet was cutting a line between the upper and lower halves of a black sky.

As the minutes passed the deep violet began to expand upward and as it pushed up and we could first see shades of lighter violet that began at the horizon and darkened to black as it rose. Eventually that color began to change from deep violet to dark blue, then to lighter blue. Still, we sat in silence, aware of each other’s breathing but nothing more.

About that same time we noticed the beginnings of small clouds that hugged just above the horizon, and that the ocean began its own color change from black to a darker blue, darker than the blue in the sky. Soon we could see the contours of the ocean and the first fuzzy details of the beach.

Nothing really happened suddenly that morning, but this next step felt sudden to us. The low clouds almost seemed to catch fire; their color turned to bright orange. It was clear to us that the clouds were reflecting the sunlight for a sun that was still below the horizon. The first light we saw was not from the light itself but from the clouds that were visible to both us and the sun. I like to think of those clouds as a type of John the Baptist, proclaiming the arrival of what we could not yet see.

By now the sky near the horizon was the light blue that we see throughout the day and only the sky directly above us was the darker blue. More of the details of the beach became visible and the light began to filter into the dining room and we could begin to see more of the people that were seated together.

This next part was sudden. No, I didn’t see the “green flash” but I did see just a sliver of orange. We all gave a collective “ahh” when we saw it. Over the next few minutes we saw it turn into an orange disk that has always reminded me of the yolk of a sunny side up egg. Only when the entire sun was visible above the horizon did we need to look away.

I’ve reflected on this morning a great deal in the years since. I hadn’t planned to get up early to see the sunrise but had the good fortune of being there when it happened (aware, of course, that it happens every morning). Had I planned to see the sunrise I’m not sure how much before the sunrise I would have made my way down to the dining room. I could have read the exact moment of the sunrise in the newspaper and had gotten there a few minutes before. Had I only wanted to see the sunrise I could have popped at the last minute, seen it, and gone about my day.

I think about this in the context of Advent because this event was made so memorable not because I was there for the moment of the sunrise, but because I was there so long before. The sunrise was beautiful for me only because I was there from the darkness and watched the whole process unfold before me. It was in the going from dark to light that made the light so special.

We are not a people who are eager to wait and see what unfolds. Think about those times when we were able to “get to the front of the line.” Imagine how good it feels to show up in a waiting room and be ushered in without waiting. We tend to see waiting as wasteful and think of important people as not having to wait like the rest of us. Waiting reminds us that we aren’t all that special after all.

I’m no bigger a fan than anyone else at having to wait in line, but in this season of Advent, this season of waiting, there is value in that time before Christmas. It has become for us a time of frenzy with Black Friday, shipping deadlines, and baking to be done, but it is also something else. It is, for me, a time to think about the time before Jesus, a time where we all awaited the coming of the Redeemer.

I also think of it as a time that was darker. We clung to prophecies like Isaiah in the hope that those days would come. Now we live in a world that has seen the Redeemer, the Messiah. Our days are certainly not devoid of darkness, but the darkness is tempered by our salvation. This salvation, that comes to us first in the birth and then resurrection, transforms the darkness from overwhelming to temporary. It reminds us that no matter how dark the darkness gets, no matter how much it may feel like we will never see light, the sunrise is indeed present for all of us.

It makes the wait worth it.

November 24, 2013: The Last Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the Second Book of Samuel and recounts the events after King Saul’s death. David is chosen by God to succeed Saul and in this reading the people ask that David become their king. The Gospel is from Luke and graphically portrays Jesus on the cross. He is being ridiculed for claiming to be a king yet is not able to save himself. One of those being crucified with him also mocks him, but the other proclaims Jesus’ innocence and asks Jesus for mercy. Jesus assures him he will join Jesus in paradise.

What exactly do we look for in a leader? As Americans we think about this a great deal since we have the privilege to choose our leaders. As I write this, the city of San Diego is choosing its next mayor and next year we elect all 435 members of the House of Representatives and 33 Senators. The candidates spend a phenomenal amount of time telling us how they plan to lead, and we choose the ones who lead us according to how we wish to be led.

David, in our first reading, is doing much the same thing. Most of us probably think that the succession between King Saul and Kind David was a smooth one, but it was far from that. David’s life is one worthy of a Ken Burns miniseries. He first comes to us in the First Book of Samuel, chapter 16. We read about him for the rest of 1st Samuel, then all of 2nd Samuel, to his death in 1st Kings, chapter 2. On the death of King Saul, a deep rivalry is opened between David and Saul’s sons. David was able to triumph and unite all of Israel into one kingdom. He is, on one hand, the warrior who defeated Goliath, and on the other, the one who raped Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah.

And to this day he is universally revered. Why? Well, it’s complicated. Frankly, the good outweighed the bad. He was a brilliant warrior, and he did unite all of Israel. It fell apart after his death and has never been fully unified since. He was, to put a fine point on it, the leader the people were looking for, even with this flaws.

When they were putting together the readings for this Feast of Christ the King/Last Sunday in Ordinary Time, they probably chose David because he was the pinnacle of leadership in the Old Testament. The New Testament reading from Luke, however shows Jesus in a situation that appears far from kingly. He is dying a horrible, painful, humiliating death. This is hardly the model we have for a king, and the crowd made a point of saying that, joined even by one of the criminals next to him. Why choose this scene, and not (perhaps) one of him after his resurrection?

I like to think that this scene captures the essence of Jesus, both in his leadership and the leadership we should strive for. Let me get back to my original question: What do we look for in a leader? We certainly want someone who is competent and able to do the job. Many of us have had the experience of someone who just didn’t know what he was doing, and that never goes well. Beyond that I think it gets a little sketchy. Do we want someone who will give us everything we want, even if that’s not sustainable? Do we instead want someone who will hold us accountable even during experiences beyond our control? Do we want someone who is fair at all times, even if that means not being creative or imaginative? Do we want someone who sees the big picture and lets the details take care of themselves? Or do we want someone who tinkers in the engine room even if that means he has no idea which way the ship is steering?

Or do we want someone like Jesus? OK, maybe I’ve loaded this question a little, but I think the answers we give in the previous paragraph give us a keen understanding of what we want. But when we think about leadership there is something to the idea of looking elsewhere than the latest management book

The heart of the Gospel reading lies in the conversation between Jesus and repentant criminal. The criminal didn’t take the easy way out and join the crowd, but recognized something in Jesus and made a fairly bold request. We don’t know anything about him, but given the political situation at the time it’s fair to say that he committed some crime of insurrection against the Romans. In that situation he actually has the courage to ask Jesus for mercy, when mercy appears to be the furthest thing away. And Jesus, being Jesus, gives him so much more. The man was simply asking to be remembered; asking for some consideration. Instead Jesus promises him salvation.

Through the years many have commented that he got a “good deal;” that he got to live for himself and at the last minute makes the right connection and receives eternal salvation for it. Some, in the flavor of the older son in the prodigal son story, have hinted darkly that they should end up better because they have “been good all their lives.” I find this disturbing on a few levels. The first is that any of us are deserving and have somehow racked up enough points to earn our way to salvation. But I’m also disturbed by the idea that this criminal had an easy life. No doubt he lived a life of sin, but was that really enjoyable to him? I’m guessing not. I doubt he lived a meek and humble life, but I also doubt he enjoyed the havoc he created. And now he’s dying.

And Jesus as king, as supreme leader, reached out to him with mercy. We don’t know how much of this was his divine self and how much was his human self, but he was able to lead this man into salvation. He was able to inspire, to give hope, and to pull him out of his situation. We don’t know if anyone else really heard him, or if it changed any minds or hearts, but I hope so.

In the final word we celebrate this feast of Christ the King not only because we want to show our gratitude, but also because we want to emulate Jesus. From time to time we are all called to positions of leadership, be they at our jobs, our families, or our neighborhoods. I pray we strive beyond David for whom the good outweighs the bad. I pray we strive instead to Jesus, who approaches leadership out of love, a love that causes us to see what the other person needs at his deepest level and provide for that.

These readings end the liturgical year. Next week’s readings begin the Season of Advent where we prepare for the birth of Jesus. Let us keep each other in prayer during this time.

November 17, 2013: The Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: the first reading is from the Old Testament prophet Malachi (don’t be embarrassed if you haven’t heard of him: he was one of the minor prophets). He speaks of a day that will “burn like a furnace” where all evildoers will perish. But all those who fear God will survive. The Gospel is again from Luke. Here Jesus sees people admiring the Temple and he warns them that a day will come when it will be destroyed. When asked when this will happen Jesus does not give any information but promises that it will great battles between nations and kingdoms. Before this happens, good people will be persecuted, but those who endure to the end will be rewarded.

I have to make a confession here: I really don’t look forward to the readings at the end of the liturgical year. The liturgical year, unlike the calendar year, ends 4 weeks before Christmas. This week and next are the last two of this liturgical year, and we begin a new year on December 1st.

I don’t like these readings, not in and of themselves, but for how they have been interpreted, and how that interpretation has changed since they were written. Both readings belong to a type of literature called “apocalyptic writing” that was common at the time.

In an earlier age most people believed in many gods; we call this paganism. During the time of Jesus it was the official religion of the Roman Empire. The gods were certainly stronger than we were, but were subject to the same jealousies and temper tantrums that we share. The gods competed with each other, and as a mere human you had to please the right gods to get blessings. The God of Israel changed all of this with His proclamation that He is the only God and his followers must not worship or even acknowledge other gods. Their only guarantee of blessings were to worship only God.

It didn’t take long for this to be challenged, because their history showed at best a rocky journey. When the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians around 586 BCE (586 years before Jesus’ birth) it was felt that God was punishing the Jews for their lack of faith. Once they repented in exile, God blessed them by allowing them to return and construct a second temple.

This is where we find the first reading from Malachi. While most Jews looked at the sacrifices and other temple worship practices with a pleased eye, Malachi did not. He saw that oftentimes wealthy people went through the motions of temple worship, but did not have the faith, or lead the life, that God demanded. His warnings went a level up from before.

Malachi warned of a time when they would not fear a conquering neighbor like the Babylonians, but instead God who would destroy them. He was really railing against those who were “Jews in Name Only.”

The Gospel provides a dramatic counterpoint to this. The Jews still worshipped at the second temple, but their world was much different. Instead of ruling themselves, as they had during Malachi’s time, they were now living under Roman occupation. The Romans allowed temple worship as long as it didn’t devolve into insurrection, but they were always looking.

The temple, alas, still showed the great differences in wealth among the Jews. A rich man who sacrificed a bull was treated with more respect than a poor man who sacrificed a dove. This is what, more than anything else, bothered Jesus (who was from a poor family himself). The Gospel begins with someone talking about how beautiful they found the temple, with its fine stonework and votive offerings. Jesus responds with a tirade about how it will all be destroyed one day.

As a point of clarification, we need to look at a timeline here. Jesus’ preaching was around the early 30’s. The second temple was indeed destroyed around the year 70 and Luke’s Gospel was written sometime after that. In other words, Luke wrote Jesus’ prophecy after the fact. This doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t say these words, but they have to be understood in the context of Luke knowing the fate of the temple.

This type of apocalyptic literature gives an interesting reversal on Malachi: this isn’t a warning that God will destroy evil doers. It’s a promise that God will deliver faithful followers.

In previous events in history we see that God uses others, even non Jews, to do His will. Those who were exiled after the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians were rescued when the Babylonians were themselves conquered by the Persians. God used pagans to save the Jews.

But what if you’re in a place where it doesn’t seem like there is anyone who can help you? It didn’t appear there was anyone bigger than the Romans and everyone knew that the Jews could not defeat the Romans themselves. What then?

The ultimate point of Jesus’ words here (and the entirety of the Book of Revelation) is that we should not lose hope. There will be a battle in the end between Good and Evil, but it’s a battle that God (and goodness) will win, and we will enjoy the fruits of that victory.

So what happened? When did these readings become fearful for us? How did we get to the “Left Behind” series? In other words, how did these readings become a cosmic “Just wait until your father gets home?”

There are a few theories out there. During the time of Jesus, and for the next 300 years, followers of Jesus (who would later be called Christians) were a renegade religion, tolerated at best. Many had to worship in secret and not identify themselves lest they be punished or even martyred. But around the year 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the state religion. Since then, for most of us, being Christian brought more benefits than problems. I have to say in my own life I can’t think of an example where being Christian has cost me anything.

So what happens when the persecuted become the powerful? We certainly don’t cry out to God to liberate us from chains that we don’t wear. Unfortunately, now that the powerful have Scripture to use in their arsenal they use it to keep people in line.

I don’t want this to sound sinister, but I think that’s what we’ve done with this. The “Left Behind” series talks about how a Rapture occurs in a split second in time where the “good people” disappear and are presumed to be taken into Heaven and the storyline centers on those left behind. The suffer persecution and have only a small shot at saving themselves from eternal damnation. I also think many of us were frightened by these readings as children (and even adults), fearing that we were the ones targeted for destruction or damnation.

That was never the point of these readings. I know it’s hard to walk back nearly 1700 years of thought on this, but recognize that these are meant to be hopeful readings. They are meant to have us believe that God is in a loving relationship with us and we have nothing to fear.

So as we begin to write the last few chapters on this liturgical year, let us do so with hope and joy.

November 10, 2013: The Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Again this week the first reading is from an Old Testament book that only Catholics recognize (mercifully next week we're back to books everyone recognizes). This reading takes place after the Jews were conquered by the Greeks and were being oppressed. The Greeks found many of their purity and kosher laws puzzling, and as a way to subjugate them, a woman and her seven sons are commanded under penalty of death to eat pig (which is prohibited under Jewish law). They refuse and accepted death, proclaiming that if they hold faithful to God they will be resurrected. The Gospel, again from Luke, sees Jesus in a debate with the Sadducees; they were Jews who did not believe in the resurrection or any form of life after death. They asked Jesus this question: if a woman marries after being widowed, which husband will she be married to in the resurrection? Jesus responds by telling them that there is no marriage in the resurrection.

What exactly awaits us after death? Is there something beyond this world and this life, and if so, where is it and what is it like?

On the surface this appears to be a simple question for Christians. We share a nearly universal belief that at the moment of our death we stand in judgement and God will either reward us with eternal life in Heaven or eternal damnation in Hell. For Catholics of the last century this was codified in a booklet called "The Baltimore Catechism" which is presented in question and answer form; in chapter 7, question 3 asks: "What will happen to your soul immediately after death?" It answers: "Immediately after my death, my soul will stand before Jesus Christ to be judged by Him."

Given that most of us were taught this long before we had much understanding of, well, anything, it's difficult to imagine not believing this. But interestingly, there is almost no mention in the Old Testament of what happens after death. Most people of that time (and the Sadducees of Jesus' time) held the belief that your life was only what you experienced here, and when you die, you cease to exist in any form.

As a matter of fact, the 2 Books of Maccabees are the main departure from this belief, and even they are unclear. Later in this book (chapter 12, versus 43 and later), the people are instructed to pray for those who had fallen in battle "for if [Judas Maccabees] were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead." In this reading we see Jews who choose to be murdered rather than violate their beliefs. In the face of torture they proclaim that they are choosing the path of being resurrected to new life.

But neither passage tells us anything about what that resurrection will be like, nor do they explicitly say that this resurrection will be denied them if they eat the forbidden food. And so I believe we can honestly ask the question of why they chose to endure this torture.

Perhaps there was the belief that they stood at a crossroad: refuse to break their dietary laws, be murdered, and be resurrected (or, violate the laws and be denied the resurrection). Perhaps they were afraid that if they succumbed to the torture it would lead other Jews to make similar decisions and they would cease to exist as a Jewish nation. Perhaps they could show the Greeks how serious they were about their beliefs in the hopes that the Greeks would give up trying to subjugate them.

In any case they acted in a way that brings honor, even now over 2000 years after it happened. I think it's fair to say that most of us look at them and hope that we would have their same courage if faced with similar circumstances.

I recognize that this first reading isn't accepted as Scripture by Protestant Christians, but it is worth noting that it describes events that happened less than 200 years before Jesus. The Gospel tells us, through the voice of the Sadducees, that not all Jews held the same beliefs about resurrection. In Luke's Gospel, members of this group are attempting to lay a trap for Jesus. They don't believe that there is anything awaiting us after we die, and they are toying with him. This is hardly unique to this Gospel, but it was a common practice among the educated to try and outwit Jesus.

I could have saved them the trouble: it never works well for them. Invariably Jesus not only slips out of the trap, but he uses it to speak to a wider truth. That said, I have to confess that I had a much harder time with this encounter than I usually do. Perhaps it's a mark of my faith, but this Gospel was a real struggle.

The question they ask is an easy one: if marriage lasts only as long as the lifetime of the first person to die, and we allow widows and widowers to remarry, who are you married to in the resurrection? Now pair this with the Old Testament (Deuteronomy chapter 25, versus 5 to 6 if you're keeping score) command that a woman whose husband dies without leaving a male heir is required to marry her husband's brother, and you have the perfect trap. Jesus, of course, does not fall for the bait, but his answer is not an easy one to parse out.

On first blush it appears that Jesus is affirming a teaching none of us can take comfort in. He says this: "The children of this world take wives and husbands, but those who are judged worthy of a place in the other world and in the resurrection from the dead do not marry because they can no longer die, for they are the same as angels, and being children of the resurrection they are sons of God." Does this mean that only those who don't marry are worthy of resurrection? Speaking for myself, I hope not.

I hope instead that he means that relationships in the resurrection will be different and it's foolish to think that the constructs we have here will be the constructs we have there. I hope it means that it will be so much greater than we can imagine that even our questions don't make sense. I had a philosophy professor in college, Dr. Peter Kreeft, who had an interesting spin on this. He taught primarily undergraduates and from time to time someone would ask him if we will have sex in Heaven. His answer was that our experience will be so much better that sex, the ultimate pleasure for college students, will pale in comparison. This was his analogy: if you're 6 years old your greatest pleasure is ice cream. We can't explain to a 6 year old that sex is much better than ice cream because a 6 year old just doesn't have the capacity to understand that anything is better than ice cream. Dr. Kreeft suggested that someone in Heaven can't explain Heavenly joy to us that is better than sex because we just don't have the capacity to understand it (by the way, he's still teaching at Boston College).

And now back to our heroes in Maccabees. I think it's safe to say that none of us will face martyrdom for our faith, but it does raise an interesting question: how would we live our lives if we were just as certain of our salvation? I know many of us believe intellectually that we will be saved, but do we really believe it? Are we certain enough of our salvation that we can comfortably stop trying impress ourselves, others, and God?

Honestly, what would we do? The dark side of all of us may go to a place of thinking that there are no consequences for bad behavior and this will lead us to an evil path, but I beg to differ. While it may be true that we can be evil with impunity, I don't think that's the path most of us will take. I like to think this will free us from the fear and uncertainty that takes up too much of our heads. If we truly know, with the same certainty of that group in the first reading, that God awaits us at the end of this life, can it make us better?

Can we stop worrying about whether we have enough, be it wealth, or love, or power? Will it make us more compassionate because the person facing us now will be with us in paradise? Can we stop looking at this person as a competitor for wealth or a parking space in a crowded mall? Will it give us a calm and peace to not rail against our current passion?

I think we can. I also believe that we've spent most of our time as Christians not believing it. I can't tell you how many good people I've met who worry about whether or not they are "good enough" for resurrection. I think sometimes as parents or teachers or pastors we create this angst out of our own fear that certainty of salvation will cause our children or students or parishioners to get lazy, greedy, or evil. Instead we need to be the people who influenced our heroes of the first reading to make the decision they did.

I like to think that when we live the resurrection, those heroes will be waiting for us and will tell us we could have relaxed all along.

November 3, 2013: The Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the Book of Wisdom (also called the Wisdom of Solomon). It's one of the books accepted by Catholics but not by Jews or Protestants. The book takes on the flavor of offering advice on how to live. It was written when the Jews were under the rule of Greece and sought to find a way to live with integrity while being oppressed. In this passage the writer speaks of the immensity of God yet how God is merciful and willing to forigve. This willingness to forgive allows for repentence of heart of all God's creations. The reading goes on to explain that God could not create something hateful to Himself and we are therefore valuable in God's eyes. The readings ends with the author admonishing the reader to correct the faults of others and allow them to do the right thing. In the Gospel we see an encounter between Jesus and Zaccheaus, a wealthy and and senior tax collector. Jesus comes to Zaccheaus' home and while some criticized Jesus for doing this, Zaacheaus protests. He insists that he will give half of what he has to the poor and if he has cheated anyone he will repay quadruple the amount. A delighted Jesus then proclaims that salvation has come to this house because Zaccheaus has repented.

On first blush I think most Christians look to the character of Mary Magdalene as the poster child for repentence and conversion. I've always found this puzzling as there is no account in the New Testament that she had ever done anything wrong. My vote for the poster child for repentence and conversion is Zaccheaus.

As with almost all of Jesus' parables, we don't know much about the characters we meet. And while we don't know anything about Zaccheaus outside of this encounter, we do know a fair amount about tax collectors. To say they were not well thought of is an understatement. As I spoke about last week, tax collectors were not those who collected the taxes necessary to provide services to the population. The money collected in taxes did not go to educate children: schools back then were all private. There was no aid to the poor or subsidized health care. The money the Jews paid was to support the Roman government; you couldn't even say that taxes paid for the common defense. The Romans were an occupying force and any common defense would have protected the Jews from the Romans. Simply put, the taxes were used by the Romans to allow them to continue to occupy Israel.

As a senior tax collector and a wealthy man, Zaccheaus was a man who lived well off the backs of others. For him to have become wealthy he would have needed to "supplement" the money he collected. It was a common practice at the time for tax collectors to shake down the people for more than they owed and pocket the rest. They were, in the truest sense of the word, reverse Robin Hoods: they took from the poor and gave to the rich, themselves included.

Given this, why on earth would Zaccheaus even want to see Jesus? If you're a wealthy tax collector Jesus is exactly the kind of guy you don't want around. You want teachers who tell the poor to accept their lot of poverty and oppression. And yet, he does try to see Jesus, even to the point of climbing a tree to see him

Perhaps he wanted to see what the excitement was about. The reading suggests he wanted to "get a measure of the man" and see if Jesus was someone to be taken seriously, or just another kook. Perhaps he was following the advice of Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Keep you friends close and your enemies closer.

In any case we can assume that the last thing he expected was for Jesus to speak to him. That's the problem with Jesus: He doesn't always do the things that are most convient for us. Here Jesus doesn't just recognize Zaccheaus, he calls him out. Incredibly, Jesus invites himself over to Zaccheaus' home. You have to figure that this is Zaccheaus' worst nightmare. As a wealthy man he may not have been liked or admired, but he did have a certain social standing and he would have lost some of that he hadn't welcomed Jesus to his home.

But here's where the reading takes a puzzling turn. Zaccheaus comes dowagern from the tree and welcomes Jesus "joyfully." Perhaps he was wisely taking the high road, and even perhaps hoping to someday tell the story as if Jesus came at Zaccheaus' invitation. And he probably had some sense of what was coming. What would Jesus say when he saw Zaccheaus' lavish house and staff of servants? What about the artwork on the wall and the many rooms? Most people are awed by this but Jesus made a reputation as someone who was critical of it. How does Zaccheus get back in control of the situation?

I'm sure Zacchheaus knew this was coming: the grumblings of those who didn't think Jesus should be seen with sinners. All through the Gospels they are like a Greek Chorus in the background. It happens all the time, and normally Jesus responds to this by saying that these are exactly the people he should be spending time with. It's a little unusual that Zaccheus is the one who speaks up.

Ordinarily in these situations I would expect him to get defensive. He is, after all, wealthy and powerful, and his position is secure as long as he pleases his Roman bosses. He could have easily said that what he does is perfectly legal and the masses have no right to call him a sinner. But he doesn't. He doesn't get angry or justify his actions; instead he makes an amazing pledge: he will give half his property to the poor and if he has cheated anyone he will repay them four times what he owes.

It's a safe bet that this isn't the way he had done business up to now. It's a common adage that you don't get to be wealthy by earning good money, but by keeping good money. If this is what he is going do starting now, his lifestyle is going to take a direct hit. He may continue to be a tax collector, and even a senior tax collector, but he won't be a wealthy one.

So what was he thinking? Perhaps in the dizzying events of the story Zaccheaus thought back to the book of Wisdom. Maybe he recognized that the writer of Wisdom was on to something, namely that Zaccheaus, while being hated by many of the Jews, was not hated by God. Maybe he recognized that of all the labels he wore (tax collector, wealthy man, sinner, traitor) the only one that counted was "God's creation." By embracing this moniker he gained the courage to give up the trappings of his life.

Because let's fact it: Zaccheaus took a risk. He risked losing much of his wealth, and frankly much of the respect of his fellow tax collectors, with no guarantee that he would gain anything. The courageous act of asking for forgiveness demands that we risk not having our repentence accepted. Jesus proclaimation that salvation has come to his house must have felt all the more gratifying because Jesus (or anyone for that matter) could have dismissed it as easy and insincere talk.

If we admire the courage of Zaccheaus for asking for forgiveness, we also need to give a shout out to those who accepted his apology. The end of the first reading from Wisdom speaks eloquently if the need to admonish those who have sinned so that they will abstain from evil. We don't know what happened to our friend Zaccheaus after this reading but I like to hope that his determination to do the right thing stuck. I like to think that when people saw him outside their homes, they no longer feared him, but welcomed him as joyfully as he welcomed Jesus

And next time someone tells you that Mary Magdalene is the true model of repentence, give a quick word about our friend Zaccheaus.

October 27, 2013: The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the book of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus). It's one of the books of the Old Testament that is recognized by the Catholic Church but not by Judaism or Protestant Churches. Here the writer counsels the reader that God does not play favorites, but listens to the plea of the poor, the injured, the widow, or the orphan. The second reading (that I often don't preach on, but fits into these readings) is Paul's 2nd Letter to Timothy. It's often called "Paul's Last Will and Testament" and is written to his disciple shortly before Paul's death [Almost nobody believes Paul actually wrote this, but it has the flavor of a tender letter from teacher to disciple, and may have actual fragments of correspondence between Paul and Timothy]. The Gospel is from Luke and here Jesus tells a parable about two men who prayed in the Temple. The first was a Pharisee who bragged to God (under the guise of gratitude) about how good he was. The second was a tax collector who asked God for mercy.

I don’t mean to quibble with the author of Sirach, but I’m puzzled by the first line of the reading: The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.

But it appears that God does know favorites: the weak, the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. This passage states that he is not unduly partial but he hears their cry. Does this mean he doesn’t hear the cry of the wealthy and powerful? Or does it mean that the wealthy and powerful do not utter any cries to God because they already have what they need? This would be of some comfort because under this system, God hears the cry of all who cry out to him, regardless of they are.

We all know intellectually that we always need God and should always go to Him with our needs, but there are times where it’s more obvious that others. In the Old Testament we see time and again “widows, orphans, and strangers” not because those three groups were especially holy, but because they were especially desperate. I’ve spoken about this before, but their society was set up with the assumption that no matter your station you were either a man capable of earning money or you were in a household that contained a man capable of earning money. If you were a boy, your father supported you until you were old enough to work. If you were a girl, your father supported you until you got married and then your husband would support you. Widows, orphans, and strangers (aliens from another land) fell out of this system. There was nothing particularly holy about these groups, but they depended on the charity of others.

Perhaps this is the crux of these readings. The men who earned a living and supported their families could easily think themselves independent. Today, even more than back then, that word “independent” is a compliment. It connotes no need to depend on others, or even God. I have to confess that as a man who works, I don’t often look at my paycheck with gratitude: I see it as something I’ve earned.

And it’s easy, perhaps too easy, to see economic independence as complete independence. We can think ourselves as being on top of the world, or having the world as our oyster, or any number of other images. But the reality is that we are not on top of the world: only God is. We don’t like to think of this, but everything we have, everything we’ve been given, and everything we’ve earned can be taken away.

As many of you know, I had a taste of this earlier in the year. Last year at this time, things were going exceptionally well for me at work. I was an Advanced Clinician, Spiritual Counselor (how’s that for a title?) at San Diego Hospice. Along with the rest of my team we were doing wonderful work. We were palliating our patients’ pain (physical, emotional, and spiritual) and there was no reason to think it was going to end. Until it did. For lots of reasons, none of which I caused, the agency went bankrupt and closed its doors. To be fair I was only laid off 16 hours before being hired by another hospice, but it taught me a horrible and timely lesson in humility: past good fortune is no indicator. While I enjoy my job and the people I work with, I’ve lost a great deal of the prestige I enjoyed, and no small amount of the money I earned. Perhaps I’ll get back to where I was, but perhaps not.

As I look at Paul’s letter to Timothy I wonder sometimes if he wasn’t having the same experience on a much larger scale. We don’t know much about Paul outside of his letters, but it’s generally assumed that he was executed in Rome around the year 60. Before he became a follower of Jesus he was a Pharisee. Pharisees at that time were the intellectual elite. They had the good fortune of being able to study and were considered the experts in matters of faith. Above all they were almost universally respected for their intellect. Even after Paul left that life and became an apostle of Jesus, he rose up in the ranks of Jesus’ followers. We see from his letters that he had a large following and brought whole communities to discipleship. And yet, in this letter he is a common criminal facing execution. If we read his letters he is gracious and grateful to a fault. He recognizes that his life is being “poured out like a libation” (or offering to God). But was there a point where he missed the honor and prestige he once had? Was there a point where he grieved that he wouldn’t be exalted as leader once Jesus returned in Paul’s lifetime? Perhaps, but we don’t’ see that. If Paul stayed off the path of recognizing his need for God, I’m happy to see that at the end of his life he strayed back.

The Gospel reading continues this theme, but in more stark relief. It’s helpful to note the station of the two men who pray in the Temple. As I’ve said, the Pharisee is a man who has earned a great deal of respect and adulation. It’s fair to say that he never had to wait for a table at a restaurant. The tax collector, on the other hand, was someone to be vilified. The tax collector was a Jew (otherwise he wouldn’t be praying in the Temple) who worked for the Romans.

I think most of us have ambivalent feelings about paying our taxes. We don’t like seeing the difference between our gross pay and our take home pay, but we understand the cost of having a government protect us. In Jesus’ time tax collectors engendered none of that ambivalence. They were thugs who extracted monies to send to Rome to further allow the Jews to be oppressed by a foreign power. The tax collector probably did what he did because that was the only way he had to feed his family. He commanded none of the social standing or respect of the Pharisee. His plea of forgiveness is well understood in this context.

The Pharisee, on the other hand, prayed a very different prayer. His prayer was self congratulatory and smug. It gave no recognition that the Pharisee was in as much need of God’s mercy and help as the tax collector. We don’t know anything about the Pharisee, but I hope he wasn’t too comfortable with his seat in the Temple. Jesus’ teaching took place around the year 30 and the Romans destroyed it about 40 years later. It’s worth noting that at some point the Pharisee’s life wouldn’t be as cushy as we see it here. I only hope the humility that Jesus was looking for found its way to the Pharisee at some point in his life.

October 20, 2013: The Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief Synopsis of the Readings: The first reading from Exodus takes place shortly after Moses and the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt. They are attacked by Amalek who can only be defeated as long as Moses, looking down on the battle from a hilltop, keeps his arms raised. As he grows weary, Aaron and Hur lift his arms until the battle is won. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus talks about an unjust judge who rules in a poor widow’s favor, not because the judge cares about her, but to stop her from nagging him. Jesus then teaches that if this poor widow can get justice, how much more can we expect justice from a just God. In the last line of the Gospel Jesus says: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?”

So has anyone ever experienced weariness? OK, it’s a silly question. Perhaps it would be better if I asked if anyone was feeling weariness now. And maybe that’s a silly question too. I find these days that weariness is as much a companion to us as anything else we experience.

It can manifest itself as the physical weariness of Moses in Exodus who must keep his arms raised less he be defeated. You know, those days when you get home and realize you’re going to have to learn to sleep faster because it all starts over again in a few hours. It’s the weariness of the new parents who realize that their home is too small as they are walking their crying baby in tight quarters. It’s the weariness of our neighbors and friends who work multiple jobs for the ability to be afraid of losing what little they have. It’s the weariness of those living on the edge.

It was also the weariness of Moses and the Israelites. We often see these post liberation stories from Exodus through the lens of Yahweh and Moses leading a ragtag and often ungrateful people to the Promised Land. There is a great deal of truth to this, but there is also the lens of people who are weary, afraid, and in danger of losing what little they have. It was the weariness that often mixes with fear and ends up fueling both.

The widow in the Gospel likely felt that same weariness and fear. We don’t know much about her, only that she had a claim against another person. In the context of Scripture, we can almost always assume a widow is poor because at that time widows were often left with little or no means of support. She was probably hounding the judge not because she was a nag, but because she was desperate.

The judge, on the other hand, was probably experiencing another kind of weariness. We don’t know much about him either, only that he was on top of his world. He “neither feared God nor respected any human being;” he probably led a pretty self indulgent life. But he had a problem: he couldn’t get rid of this annoying, nagging widow. What she lacked in everything else, she gained in tenacity and stubbornness because, frankly, she had no other choice. The judge probably knew that if he found for the other person the widow would keep hounding him. He decided in her favor for no other reason than to cure his weariness.

But here’s where the Gospel takes a strange turn. Seemingly out of nowhere Jesus blurts this out: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

I can’t tell you how many years I’d read this passage from Luke without even noticing this last line. But as sometimes happens in Scripture, as in life, we see something for the first time that has always been in front of us. As I picture the scene with Jesus and his disciples, I see Jesus trying to get a point across and the disciples just don’t get it. This is hardly unique: Jesus’ disciples often miss the point and I sometimes wonder if they listen at all.

Most of the time we don’t see Jesus’ reaction to this. We can assume that he is sometimes bemused, sometimes frustrated, and sometimes…weary. I like to think that this time all that frustration and weariness boiled over. It wasn’t the physical weariness of Moses or the moral weariness of the unjust judge. It was the emotional weariness of someone trying to make a simple point to a group of people who just didn’t get it.

We’ve all been there: trying to make a point to someone who won’t or can’t listen. Maybe it’s a child who doesn’t think we truly understand the situation. Maybe a neighbor who has his own agenda with no room for anyone else’s. Or maybe a student whose ability to ignore is stronger than our ability to teach. I’ve often said that in the contest between the irresistible force and the immoveable object, always bet on the immoveable object.

Unfortunately the Kingdom is only built if we can move the immoveable object. I’m pleased by Jesus weariness here because it means he isn’t going to take the easy way out. He says what he says because the easiest thing to do is to give up. I imagine there were times when Jesus wanted to trade in these disciples for a new set and start over again, and make better choices of disciples this time. But he didn’t. Implicit in this is Jesus commitment to keep going, keep teaching, and keep building.

I like to think it’s the same with us. I think sometimes we attribute this weariness not to a reflection on the immoveable object in front of us, but on our own inability. To that feeling I offer this: even Jesus felt weary at times. When we weary of a job, it’s not always because we are doing it wrong or that we’re not good enough. Sometimes that weariness is a good sign: it means we are paying attention and seeing when we’re not getting through. It also means we understand how important it is for us to keep going. Sometimes it means that we need to regroup, focus, and keep going, teaching, and building. This Gospel begins the 8th chapter of Luke and for what it’s worth, Jesus continues teaching for several chapters after this.

So I won’t tell you not to grow weary: that’s probably not possible. There will be times when our arms will grow weary and we need others to support us. There will be times when we will be hounded and nagged into making the right decision, even if we don’t want to. And there will be times when we know what we need to do and just need to take a break before diving back in there.

October 13, 2013: The Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Tim

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the 2nd Book of Kings and describes an encounter between Naaman, who commanded the military forces of a foreign land, and Elisha, an Israelite prophet. Namaan suffers from leprosy and is desperate to be healed. Out of desperation he hears that a prophet from Israel can cure leprosy and he travels there. While there Elisha cures Namaan and Namaan rejoices and announces that he will worship God. In the Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus encounters ten lepers who beg for healing. When Jesus cures them, only one returns to praise Jesus for the healing

Boy, talk about ingratitude! Here Jesus goes to all the trouble of healing these 10 from their disease, and only one comes back to thank him. No present, no thank you note, note even a mention on Facebook or Twitter. Can you imagine such a thing?

OK, maybe this is a Gospel about thank you notes, or a treatise on how God can cure even the most horrible of diseases, but it has to be more than that. Maybe there is something going more going on here. One thing is clear: leprosy in the context of these readings creates a miserable life. We have leprosy today: it’s called Hansens’ Disease, and it responds well to treatment. We don’t call those infected with the disease lepers anymore and we don’t ostracize them. But frankly, we don’t know if this disease in Scripture really is what we know to be leprosy today. In any case, this much is clear: leprosy back then was some sort of a skin disease that caused enough fear in others that sufferers were ordered to stay away and could not be in close contact with anyone else. Interestingly it appeared that sometimes it could be cured as it was the role of the priests to judge if someone had been healed. As a matter of fact, when the lepers begged Jesus to cure them, he instructed them to show themselves to the priest, and on the way they found themselves cured.

It doesn’t say anything about this is the Gospel, but what if Jesus were not the only one whom they asked? While we believe that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, his society was brimming with people who promised supernatural powers. Imagine if you suffered from leprosy. Is there anyone you wouldn’t ask for healing? Perhaps the other 9 were on their way to thank other people who had promised to cure them.

The heart of this reading for me is this: when good or bad things happen to us, how do know what caused them? For example, let’s take the case of an infertile couple who find themselves pregnant. Why were they able to conceive now, and not before? Was it dumb luck or long persistence? Was it one of the new experimental procedures they tried? Was it that God finally found them worthy of being parents? Was it that God just now got around to their case? If they proclaim that their prayers have been answered, is it true? In the same way, were the 10 lepers cured because of dumb luck? Was it because of the intervention of Jesus or some other person who made the same claim to be able to cure? Was it the good fortune of finding a merciful priest?

The truth is that on some level we can never really know where the Hand of God lies in our lives, though we certainly don’t talk about it that way. There is a dating service out currently to who promises to “find God’s match for you.” I used to work with a woman who would proclaim “Praise God” whenever I gave her good news. She is a joyful person who finds God’s hand in all good things.

Unfortunately there is a dark side to this also. When bad things happen, we can also find God’s judgement or wrath and we’ve seen that cause great damage. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 Jerry Falwell announced that this happened because of “pagans, abortionists, feminists and gays.” He said it was their fault, though he did later recant. The dark side also doesn’t need to be this sinister. Sometimes in our attempt at consolation we can attribute God’s hand in tragedy and miss the mark. I once ran a grief support group where one of the participants was a young woman whose fiancé died suddenly; several people, in well meaning attempts to help her, told her that he died because God had someone much better in mind. Her response was guilt over the fact that her falling in love with him proved fatal to him.

So where do we go with this? Is the hand of God in everything that happens to us, from the birth of a long awaited child to the loss of a job? If so, how do we know what to do with this? As many of you know, the agency that employed me for 8 years went bankrupt this past winter. Was God pulling the levers? Should I have been more faithful or competent? Was this punishment for someone else’s wrongdoing and the rest of us were collateral damage? I was able to find another job quickly and many of the people I loved working with did not. Does that make me more blessed in the eyes of God?

Or do we go the other way? Some believers think that God created the universe as a large clock, wound it up, and walked away. The universe is now unfolding as it is supposed to, and God does not move levers or affect change. In that world, prayer and faithfulness are of no value because they don’t change anything. Things happen because they happen and there is no cause and effect. We are truly on our own.

But that doesn’t seem to make any sense in the context of our readings. In 2nd Kings the leper Naaman responds to his cure by switching his allegiance from his pagan gods to God and there is rejoicing. In the Gospel, the one leper who recognizes Jesus’ role praises Jesus who is pleased. It is interesting to note that though Jesus recognizes that only one has come back, he did not withdraw the healing of the other nine.

Many years ago I heard a homily by a priest who I’ve always respected, Fr. Richard Sparks. He suggested that this may be an allegory of salvation. Perhaps this reading shows that salvation comes to us, all of us, and only some of us recognize Jesus’ hand. In other words the gift of being Christian is not that we will be saved; everyone will be saved. The gift of being Christian is that we recognize the power of Jesus in that salvation.

I like that suggestion because it speaks to me of an inclusion of everyone, a recognition that if we think of leprosy as the tragedy we all face from time to time, that tragedy is not the last word. We live in a benevolent Universe that heals all of us, even if we don’t know why or how.

As for me, when I see these readings I try not to zoom in too much on it. The ordinary things in my life may or may not have the hand of God behind them but looking too hard to guessing too much exhausts me. I like rather, looking at the fact that the hand of God is behind my entire life and that salvation is open to me regardless of the series of events I confront.

I suggest to all of us that we “zoom out” when we think about God’s intervention. When tragedy strikes us we can all look at these events and learn but this learning is somehow cheapened if we root around our lives looking for some sin we’ve committed or some wrong we’ve done.

If leprosy is a metaphor of our suffering, maybe our lesson comes from recognizing that we will be healed of it, even if we don’t know why. A few years ago I saw a plaque that said this: “I may not know God’s plan for me but I know God has a plan and I’m included.

October 6, 2013: The Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The Old Testament Prophet Habakkuk demands of God to know when there will be an end to injustice and tyranny to which God counsels patience. In the Gospel, the apostles ask Jesus for more faith. Jesus tells them that they have little faith and that a servant should not expect praise for simply doing his job.

When I was a child I was always taught, at least implicitly, that it was a sin for a child to get angry with an adult. I couldn’t even imagine what would happen if you got mad at God. Now, as an adult, I’m trying to figure out how they kept this first reading from me. If you don’t think Habakkuk is yelling at God, you’re not reading it right.

So if getting angry with God is indeed a sin, at least I’m in good company. But I think Habakkuk has a point. What do we do in the face of injustice? How do we respond to injustice that we know God can fix, particularly if it’s an injustice we think we can’t fix? Several years ago I heard a Paulist priest, Fr. Vinnie McKiernan, talk about how complaining can sometimes be good. He suggested that if we don’t complain from time to time, it may mean we don’t think things can get better. Someone who never points to injustice may be sinking into a pit of despair.

It is that love of justice that I think grounds our anger at God: we’re not really angry with God so much as we are angry with the injustice. It also means that we have enough trust in God that getting angry isn’t going to destroy our relationship. We dare not get angry with someone we love if we think that anger will tear us apart.

And Habakkuk’s anger is justified. He is living in a society that just isn’t working. His railing against tyranny and injustice continues the themes from Amos that we have seen in the last few weeks, and frankly, it’s a theme we see in our nation today. It is interesting to me that whatever end of the political spectrum we find ourselves, we all have the same complaint: we are the victims of injustice and tyranny. I don’t choose to take sides, but it appears we’ve gotten so polarized that it’s easy to feel that we have no options. It is beyond our power, individually and collectively, to move beyond this to the justice we all seek.

And it’s easy to slide into that pit of despair. It’s easy to believe that there will never be any progress, the injustice we see will always be here, and that our complaints and cries to God are futile. To this, God suggests patience. Now, for those of us who still can’t believe that God hasn’t given us the patience we demand, this is a hard pill to swallow. We are people of timetables and deadlines. We have 5 year plans and atomic clocks. We are people for whom precision is nearly a sacrament.

But our time is not God’s time. As a matter of fact, the ancient Greeks even had two words for time. The first was Kronos, and that’s the time we know. It’s the one we’ve divided into 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, and 365 days per years. We’ve even made 24/7 a part of our vocabulary. We are nothing if not experts at Kronos. But God has a different time: Kairos. We don’t know much about this and we don’t have a way of measuring it, but we think of it as God’s timetable. We can glimpse it in hindsight: this happened when it did so that this could happen when it did, and that resulted in something we are grateful for. When God tells Habakkuk to “wait, for come it will, without fail,” this is what God means. God is, in a sense, synchronizing Kronos and Kairos. Years ago I had my own window into this world. In 1995 my grandfather was dying and I was able to make it to his bedside. When I saw him he could speak, but not very much. My aunt and I were there one day, and she said to him: “Dad, it’s OK for you to go now. You’ve suffered enough and Heaven awaits.” He whispered back: “I’m not ready yet.” And he wasn’t: he lived another 3 weeks. I’m not sure what he did in those three weeks. He didn’t get out of bed and his words got fewer and fewer. But on the day before he died he told the woman who was caring for him that he was ready. Those three weeks were Kairos, not Kronos. He was looking at his life not through the eyes of his watch, but through the eyes of God’s clock. He was looking through the eyes of his faith

Perhaps that’s the starting point of the Gospel when the apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith. Previous to this reading Jesus warned them against stumbling into sin and it makes sense that they see an increase of their faith as a way of avoiding sin. Jesus’ dire warning called the apostles to look with different eyes.

But Jesus has an interesting response. Instead of increasing their faith, or telling them how they can increase it themselves, he instead shows them how little faith they have. In telling them that faith the size of a mustard seed would allow them to do superhuman things, he is telling them that their faith isn’t even big enough to be a mustard seed. And then he does something even stranger: he talks about how a servant shouldn’t expect praise or special treatment. That sounds pretty harsh to me. I think we all understand that we should do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do, but really? C’mon Jesus, can’t we get some love here?

OK, the love of Jesus is never far from us, but maybe the point Jesus is making is that if we do the right thing only in the hopes of getting affirmation, it’s ultimately going to fail us. When God is speaking to Habakkuk and Jesus is speaking to the apostles, maybe they are both making the same point: Do the right thing, stay faithful to My teachings, love one another without keeping an eye to the results. For the people of Habakkuk’s time, things don’t go well for a long time. They are conquered, exiled, and eventually liberated. Jesus’ apostles fair little better: Jesus is crucified and buried, but eventually raised from the dead. The Kingdom Jesus proclaims first suffers Roman occupation and the destruction of the Temple. Anyone banking on a quick reward for the hard work of building the Kingdom will get discouraged. But anyone living with a sense of Kairos understands that the timetable is not our call.

It’s the same today. We see tyranny and injustice all around us. We see powerful people exploiting the weak and good honest people not getting what they deserve. We see ourselves getting the short end of the stick for doing the right thing. But we also see Habakkuk and Jesus’ apostles ending up on the right side of history. We see the Kingdom that we proclaim getting closer if we use the right timepeace.

And so do not be discouraged. The good things we do will bear fruit, if not for ourselves, for others who will acknowledge and appreciate us. And so in the meantime, let us continue to rail against injustice, and ask God to be with us.

September 29, 2013: The Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first reading Amos continues to rail against leaders who use their power to make their lifestyle cushy at the expense of their people. God warns that they may do well now, but destruction is just around the corner. The Gospel continues Luke's theme. Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus spends his life begging at the gate of the rich man's house. When Lazarus dies he goes to Heaven, but when the rich man dies he goes to Hades. He asks Abraham to have Lazarus to dip his finger in water and touch his tongue to give him some relief. When Abraham refuses, the rich man asks that his brothers be warned of this, and again Abraham refuses.

In many ways today’s readings continue the themes from last week, but with a sharper point. Luke’s Gospel is nothing if not evocative and provides probably the most well known Christian image of hell. Both readings draw sharp distinctions between what the rich and poor do, and what happens (or will happen) to them in the end.

Amos is pretty straightforward when he asserts that leaders who use their power for their own cushy lifestyle will lead their people into destruction. It’s not clear if this will happen because God’s displeasure will drive them into exile, or if this will happen because they will not be strong enough to defeat their enemies, but it doesn’t matter. A leader whose primary concern is his own comfort is not a leader at all. Unfortunately in this context, everyone pays. Amos was written about 760 years before the birth of Jesus; about 150 years after this, they were overthrown and sent into exile by the Babylonians. It went badly for everyone, rich and poor. But it went badly not because the poor did anything wrong, but because the wealthy were too selfish.

Luke, on the other hand, makes these events more personal. I find it interesting in the interplay between the rich man and the poor man, we only know the name of the poor man, Lazarus. It’s normally the rich guy’s name we know but here we don’t. By the end of the parable it perhaps makes sense because he is no longer worthy of our attention, only Lazarus. He had a life of suffering and eternity to enjoy while his counterpart had a few years of luxury and eternity to suffer. Interestingly, only then does the rich man show compassion for anyone, asking that his brothers be warned to take another path, lest they end up in the same place. I’m sure I’m not the only one who looks at this encounter and wonders if this was Charles Dickens’ inspiration for the scene in A Christmas Carol where Marley warns Scrooge to make changes.

But back to the rich man, did he really live a life of luxury, or fear? Lazarus spent his life outside the rich man’s gate, and the rich man recognized Lazarus in the arms of Abraham. Many have found it interesting that even there, the rich man could not bring himself to directly address Lazarus. Instead the rich man asked Abraham to tell Lazarus to dip his finger to cool the rich man’s tongue. In other words, the wall of silence between the rich man and Lazarus extended even there. Even there the rich man could not bring himself to speak with Lazarus. I suspect that this was because the rich man had spent his entire life isolating himself from people who troubled him

Lazarus, however, did not have that opportunity. He no doubt spent his life watching the rich man. The years he spent outside the man’s home competing with dogs for table scraps were also years spent longing for a relationship with him. Perhaps the rich man didn’t like how Lazarus looked, or smelled, or maybe he couldn’t talk with Lazarus because Lazarus was a reminder that this could happen to anyone, himself included. And he needed to do anything to not have that reminder.

If the point of last weeks’ readings was to show that economic inequality leads to some people having more than they can use while others don’t have enough for basic needs, these readings show us that economic inequality also eats away and eventually destroys community. It herds us into small groups that impoverish us, in the same way that the rich man and Lazarus were impoverished.

Last week I spoke about how the gap between our wealthiest and poorest is greater than it has been since 1929. Part of the pain of that gap is the way it divides us into territories that both insulate and imprison us. I know this is going to make us uncomfortable, but bear with me. How do you feel when you are driving and pull up to an intersection where someone is holding a sign asking for help? It makes me uncomfortable. I hear several voices on my shoulders. If I give him money, he’ll just use it for alcohol or drugs. If I give him money, it just encourages him to remain there instead of looking for honest work. If I give him money, maybe that will calm the hunger pangs in his stomach. If I give him money, maybe his wife and children will have what they need for today. If I think too much about him, I’ll worry that whatever happened to him could also happen to me.

Maybe he’s there because he’s made some bad choices, but God knows I have too. Maybe he’s there because while we have had great success in treating diseases of other organs, we have not made much progress in treating diseases that attack our brains. And I’m not immune from that either; there is no vaccine against schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Maybe he is there because he has seen or experienced something I cannot imagine and his scars prevent him from leaving that traffic island. I have no guarantee against facing that same experience down the road. In any case, I sometimes look the other way because I don’t want him reminding me of that.

Did you ever wonder if that was what propelled the rich man to Hades? What if this wasn’t a case of God evaluating his life and deciding he didn’t deserve salvation? What if the idea of having to face Lazarus was too horrifying after the years of isolation that he just couldn’t follow Lazarus into the arms of Abraham?

The imagery of Hades is gripping and I don’t think any of us aren’t frightened with the idea of spending all eternity “in agony in these flames.” But maybe the image of flames isn’t the best image of agony. I think the threat of physical pain is the most effective threat we can make to children, but I think the threat of isolation is the one that scares me the most. When I think back on my life, the truly hellish experiences have not been experiences of physical pain, but of loneliness. It has been those times I’ve starved for connection with another person and have not found it. Years ago there was an episode of the TV series St. Elsewhere where they explored this. One of the characters was shot and seriously wounded and dreamed about going to both Hell and Heaven; the show took place in a hospital and there were a number of characters who had previously died. When he was in Hell he encountered a fellow doctor who had died. This doctor was in a rowboat alone on a dark lake, still blaming God for getting a raw deal. I was fascinated by the fact that he could still glimpse Heaven from where he was but even there was not willing to do anything to change his lot. The character who was shot was then transported to Heaven and it nice to see. Not only was it beautiful, it was full of people who enjoying each others’ company. There was no loneliness to be found anywhere there.

I think we choose a little bit of Heaven whenever we reach across a divide. A few years ago I was in the hospital visiting the father of my friend Lynn. He was very sick and had enough concerns about himself. As a matter of fact he died not long after. We had a delightful visit and at the end I offered to pray with him. As is my habit I asked what we should pray for. I expected the normal litany: his health, his family, his loved ones. He surprised me by asking to pray “for the most abandoned soul in Purgatory.” I was struck at that moment with the stunning love and wisdom I had just heard. He didn’t ask me to pray for those he loved, but for those who didn’t think God loved them. In our prayer together we reached across a divide that was as immense as the one between the rich man and Lazarus, and as close as the driver and the man standing on the traffic island with the sign.

September 22, 2013: The Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first reading the Old Testament Prophet Amos warns that God will exact punishment on those who take advantage of the poor (as an aside, Amos 5:24 is the verse made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream”). Luke’s Gospel speaks of a master who employs a steward who thinks the master is wasteful. Fearing the master will find out and fire him, the steward cuts deals with the master’s debtors hoping the debtors will come to his aid. Instead the master praises the steward. Jesus sets this up to tell his disciples not to be enslaved by money.

Today’s Gospel always puzzled me a little. At first glance it can be hard to see if the steward is a good guy or a bad guy. Most of the time a steward who pleases his master is a good guy because most of the time the master is God. Here it’s different. Clearly the steward is playing any card he can to avoid losing what he has. To quote Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi: “This bounty hunter is my kind of scum.”

But oddly, it turns in the steward’s favor and he is praised. Should we do what the steward did? Well, obviously, no. Jesus sets up this steward as one who chooses money over the people around him. And then Jesus says this: “Use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity.” Instead of using money to gain more money, use money to win friends, which is exactly what the steward was attempting to do.

See, that’s the thing about wealth. We’ve been obsessed, enraptured, and possessed by wealth since the first person found he could own something someone else couldn’t. From that day until now there has been inequality of resources. In Biblical times many felt that your station in life was what God (or gods) intended. The wealthy are that way because they are blessed, and the poor are poor because, well, that’s the way it is. The poor always hoped to become wealthy, and the wealthy feared becoming poor. There weren’t many voices suggesting that perhaps there could be a different relationship.

Enter the prophet Amos. When I was in seminary the rector told me that the role of the prophet was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I’m sure that wasn’t his quote, but it’s one I’ve often thought of. Amos speaks harsh words to the wealthy; in those days you could not conduct business under a New Moon or on the Sabbath. But instead of seeing those days as days of rest, they were interruptions to business. Instead of using those days to reconnect with family and friends, to pay attention to those around us, these people waited impatiently to get back to the work of oppressing the poor. And their ancestors, let’s not forget, were the ones who cried out to God for liberation from Egypt.

I believe Amos and Jesus both saw that wealth, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing, but sinfulness comes in when we misuse it. I think we see it both in Amos and in Luke, that the Kingdom of God cannot be advanced when there are great disparities in standards of living. Recall Amos’ words: “we can buy the poor for money and the needy for a pair of sandals.” It was common in those days that those in debt, facing no other choice, sold themselves and perhaps even their families into servitude. How can the Kingdom be advanced when that was happening? If a person’s freedom can be quantified to a specific price, how does that not enslave all of us?

Now we’re a far cry from those days, and at least in this country most of us have institutions and structures to make sure we’re not sold into slavery, and perhaps the argument can be made that these readings are outdated. Or perhaps not. We learned this week that the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in our nation is the widest since 1929. The rich appear to be getting richer, and the poor appear to be getting poorer.

This is where I get into sticky political situations, but I feel these readings compel me to do so. I think most of us are not waking each day worried about finding enough food for ourselves and our families, but we are aware that there are those who do. Exasperated by this, I think many of us throw up our hands and say: “What am I supposed to do? It’s not like I have enough to make a dent.” That’s true, none of us on our own can do that. But I think we need to look at the collective way we can change what we do in ways that do not impoverish ourselves and our families, but lead us closer to the worlds Amos and Jesus envisioned.

In 1986 the bishops of the United States, or the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote a document called: Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy and I think that bears some consideration. They speak of something called “distributive justice” whereby everyone has enough, that wealth is distributed in such a way that nobody is left scratching for basic needs. That doesn’t mean everyone has to have the same amount and this doesn’t take away economic reward for hard work. But it does mean that we are all sufficiently rewarded for our labor when everyone has enough.

When Ben and Jerry started making ice cream 35 years ago they pledged that the highest paid executive would make only 7 times the lowest hourly wage. Alas, they later were forced to abandon it as the company grew and they couldn’t find executives capable of the job willing to work for that little, but I think they were on to something. Imagine if they had found someone with the skills to do that who believed that he had enough and didn’t need more.

In the Jewish tradition they speak of something called the “Ladder of Tzedakah” or “ladder of charity.” It states that there are 8 levels of giving. The lowest rung is giving only begrudgingly. As you climb the rungs it goes through various stages of giving to those who cannot reciprocate, giving anonymously, etc. The highest rung is to set up a structure where the recipient becomes self-reliant.

I think we have the means to do that, but it causes us to be deliberate in how we allocate our resources. Many of us think nothing of spending more money on things like buying organic, avoiding gluten or additives, etc. But can we also be more deliberate in where we spend our money? We are bombarded by advertising that tells us how cheaply we can get what we need, but can we at least consider putting our resources into places that better allow everyone to benefit a little more? In other words, can we consider paying more for what we need to companies that treat their employees better?

I think we can, and I think that’s what Amos and Jesus would tell us to do in the 21st Century. I’m not telling your how to spend your money, but if it became clear that large numbers of us diverted our wealth toward companies that allowed their workers to live better lives, wouldn’t they do it? If we made it clear that we didn’t want anything made in sweatshops or factories that abused their workers, wouldn’t that cut down on those places? If capitalism has taught us anything, it’s that merchants are very good at “following the money.”

So let’s do that. Let’s start spending our hard earned money on places that allow their employees to do well. Look for places that seem to have good employee retention, or where they seem happy. Look on the web for socially responsible shopping; you’d be surprised at what you will find. Because in the final analysis, we all do well only when we all do well.

September 15, 2013: The Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from Exodus and takes place shortly after the liberation from Egypt. While Moses is on Mt. Sinai, the newly formed community has regressed to pagan idols. God tells Moses He will destroy the Israelites and begin over again with a new nation. Moses talks God out of this and God does not destroy them. The Gospel reading contains the parable of the Prodigal Son (sometimes called the parable of the Loving Father). The younger of a man’s two sons asks for his inheritance immediately and squanders it on bad living. Now broke, he returns asking to be made a servant of his father. Instead, his father throws a party to welcome him back. The older son is angry that his younger brother appears to be rewarded for bad behavior while the father focuses on the fact that his younger son has returned.

In the context of our faith as Christians, how do we deal with the issue of ingratitude? We all live with the belief that we should be grateful for things done for us, and others should be grateful when we are generous. But what is our response if that doesn’t happen? The advice column industry thrives on letters from grandparents, aunts, neighbors, etc. who send gifts for weddings, graduations and birthdays, but never receive thank you notes. We are probably all a little put off if we do something nice that doesn’t get an acknowledgement in return.

But what if the ingratitude goes beyond that? What if we give something or do something incredibly generous and the recipient, instead of being grateful or even mildly impressed, betrays us? What do we do then? Are we supposed to forgive and forget? Or are we supposed to recognize the betrayal and move on, determined never again to help that person? Or are we justified in seeking revenge? That, I believe, is at the heart of these readings.

The first reading from Exodus needs a little context. I suspect we are all familiar with the events leading up to this reading. Anyone who hasn’t read this part of Scripture has at least seen the Charlton Heston movie The Ten Commandments. God’s chosen people are enslaved in Egypt and cry out to God. God hears their plea and chooses Moses lead them out of bondage to create a new nation, and Moses does that. While on the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, Moses goes up Mt. Sinai and he and God work out the details of this new nation. Meanwhile, the rest of the flock, thinking perhaps Moses isn’t coming back, reverts back to pagan worship against the express demands of God.

A few weeks ago I spoke about a conversation between God and Abraham where it appears that Abraham is trying to talk God out of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. Here the conversation with Moses is similar, only here Moses appears to win. Not to put too fine a point on this, but you can hardly blame God for His anger. He goes to all the trouble to liberate the people He has chosen and now they betray Him. This passage can almost be read as God saying to Moses: “Look, I’m going to destroy this group. Then you and I will find a new chosen people and start over.” I have to think that was tempting to Moses also. But instead Moses reminds God that the story didn’t begin in Egypt, but rather way back with Abraham. He is asking God not to judge His people on the basis of this one incident, but remind Him of the long relationship between God and His people. He is appealing to God’s mercy to look at the community not from this once incident but from years of faithfulness. Only in healing and moving on can there be a future for this new nation. It does strike me as odd that Moses is the one who is asking God to be more forgiving, but I suspect that like the God’s conversation with Abraham, this is a literary tool. Only by writing this as a conversation can we see the process of healing and moving on.

Certainly the Gospel parable continues this theme of our response to betrayal of our generosity, but here it takes on a much more human touch. This has been a reading that is troubling to many of us, myself included. In my work with hospice I have seen inheritance fights so bad they would cause you to doubt that there is any goodness in humanity. People in their 50s and 60s fighting over tool kits and TV sets, acting like 8 year olds fighting over who gets to swing on the swing. But this is even worse: the younger son knows he will inherit half of his father’s estate on his father’s death, but can’t be bothered with the years his father has left. He wants his share now.

We don’t know the father’s reaction to this, but we have to believe the father was at least hoping his son would care for the estate. He didn’t. He didn’t even neglect it. He sold it and hit the road. And then, and then, he blew it. All of it. Only when his back was against the wall did he decide to ask forgiveness. Here is the part that many of us find troubling: his father did indeed welcome him back and threw a party to celebrate. The older son, the one who did nothing wrong He has to be thinking that no good deed goes unpunished. He appears to be the chump here and he is angry about it.

For many years of reading this parable, so was I. The estate is now half the size it was before. What happens when the party is over? What happens next month when the younger son mentions that he is still entitled to half the now smaller estate? And…what happens when he announces to his father that he wants that half so he can do this all over again? Does the father spend the last years of his life watching his estate crumble again by half? Does the older son stand by while his future grows dimmer with each of his brother’s bad decisions? Where is the justice in that?

A few years ago I was reading this parable and saw something I hadn’t seen before. There is always that danger in reading Scripture. When the father was consoling his older son he said this: “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours.” (emphasis mine) I hope I’m not reading too much into this, but it appears to say that while the younger son is welcomed back, he doesn’t get the chance to do it again. He is once again a welcome member of the family but he doesn’t get half of what remains. His half of the estate is gone.

Perhaps this is the point where it all hinges, where we finally see what we are to do with generosity betrayed. At the beginning of this sermon I asked if one response is to “forgive and forget.” Clearly, they are not the same thing, and I think sometimes we overuse that phrase without recognizing its impact. While we all agree on the divine nature of forgiving, and let’s face it, it’s the core of Jesus’ teaching, there is no virtue in forgetting. That is simply amnesia. And while the parable makes clear that the younger son is forgiven, he is not given the chance to do it again.

And as for the Israelites? It should come as no surprise, but the golden calf wasn’t their last betrayal. They ended up in the desert for 40 years before they crossed into the promised land. There is some dispute over the reason for this, but it may be that God didn’t allow them into the promised land, but only their descendants. They remained God’s chosen people but they didn’t profit from their sin.

Forgiveness means we are not defined by the stupidest or cruelest thing we’ve ever done. It means that with the new day we can find our way back to the person or community we hurt. But it does not mean that those around us pay the price for the damage we’ve caused. Ultimately we are responsible for that. There are times for all of us where we are the younger son, but there are also times where we are the older. And of course there are hopefully times where we are the forgiving father.

September 8, 2013: The Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Here Jesus is telling his disciples that they have to hate their family and themselves and carry their cross to be his disciple. He goes on to say that before starting a job or going to war, you should make sure you can complete the job or win the battle, let you become a laughingstock.

This is one of those times I’m grateful I’m not a fundamentalist. If we believe that everything Jesus says in the Gospels is literally true and all his words carry the same weight, we would have to believe that Jesus is telling us to love our enemies and hate our family.

Much of the gospel appears to tell us we shouldn’t start something we can’t finish, because if we do, people will laugh at us. Good advice, but does it really stop there? Like last week, we don’t normally turn to Scripture for advice that is obvious.

Perhaps the message here is that we need to be fully committed if we want to be disciples. I’m generally uncomfortable with saying “Well, Jesus didn’t really mean exactly that” because it makes it too easy to water down his message. But I think we can all see his demand that we hate ourselves and our family as a bit of hyperbole.

I believe that Jesus is overstating his message to focus on the fact that we need to be fully committed to his teachings and the call to proclaim his Kingdom. At any given time all of us are pulled in several directions and we all serve many masters: our needs, our families, our careers, our peer group, even our carpool.

But if God is our supreme master and discipleship is our main purpose, this needs to be out in front and there is no room for second place. Jesus’ harsh and unbending words here point us to the hard truth that this path of discipleship is not for the weak or those who are half committed. In the course of his ministry Jesus was constantly battling his disciples who misunderstand his message.

Jesus was far from the only person proclaiming himself the Messiah at that time, and ever since, but we believe he was the only true one. To be a follower of Jesus carries with it the nearly irresistible desire to get a high place at the table. “Remember me? I was with you since the beginning. I’m way better than those who came later.” It is to these people that Jesus says “you must carry your cross and follow me.”

Crucifixion is so far removed from our experience that it’s hard to fully grasp the horror of this statement. We sometimes use the phrase “carry our cross” as a metaphor for shouldering our responsibilities. But those who carried their cross during the time of Jesus were going down a horrible road. The Romans used crucifixion not as a simple method of execution: it was reserved for those who tried to overthrow the empire and they were tortured to death to show what happens to zealots. We see that this happens to Jesus, and while we don’t have a great deal of evidence, we believe that many of his disciples faced the same fate.

Today there is no chance we will face this horrible end, and let’s face it: we live in a place where being called a Christian is often a synonym for being a good person. So what are we to do with this gospel?

Perhaps our message today is found in that very advice not to start something we don’t know we can finish. Or to quote the philosopher Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

There are certainly good reasons for trying something that may not end in success. If we always play it safe we will almost certainly not reach our full potential. Sometimes we have to be willing to fail to see how much we can do.

On the other hand, though, sometimes we can use that word “try” as a way to make a limited attempt. How often have we seen someone (or let’s be honest, ourselves) attempt something we really didn’t want to do, do a halfhearted job, quit, and say “Well, I tried” knowing nobody is going to blame us.

Several years ago I worked with the Salvation Army. We worked with a population of teen girls who were either pregnant or raising a child as a single parent. They came from the foster care system or juvenile hall. It was a tough job, much more for them than for me. We were teaching them how to take responsibility for another person when often they were still learning how to take care of themselves. One of the jobs that they absolutely hated was cleaning their room before going to school because they knew that someone like me was going to do a room inspection when they left. There was one girl in particular who probably had never made a bed in her life and swore to me that she was never going to pass room inspection. We worked hard with her, and she with us, to break it down to smaller jobs (first you tuck in the sheets, then the blankets, etc.). After making her bed she had to put everything away in her closet, and on like that. I have to confess that I started to wonder if she really ever would learn this stuff. Then one day, after she had gone to school, I went into her room…and it was passable. I was so stunned I got one of my coworkers to come and inspect it too. She passed. When she came back from school I told she passed and she was elated. Then I brought her back to reality by saying: “You do realize that you can never again tell me you can’t do this. I have proof you can.” She then muttered something about how life was easier when she was convincing me that she couldn’t. There was no try; there was only do. I don’t know where she is now, but I hope she’s still making her bed.

Jesus calls us to something that we all think we can’t do. He calls us to treat the last like they are first, to recognize everyone around us as the same precious child of God we see ourselves. In an odd sort of way, we can sometimes do what the early disciples did: Because there are few risks to being a Christian, at least here, we can try to trade our discipleship for fame, or at least popularity. If being a Christian has gone from being the last to now being the first, we are not absolved of our obligation to care for the last. If anything our obligation has increased because we have become the first.

I’m grateful for my time working with teen mothers because they had to learn as teenagers the things I had the opportunity to learn years earlier. I had the good fortune to grow up in a family where we all had to make our beds and clean our rooms. It may not have been fun, but at least I knew how to do it. Only because of that was I able to teach it to someone who had not been as fortunate.

We don’t have to look hard at those who are last in our world. They are the poor, the undocumented, the invisible. They are the lonely, the abandoned, the marginalized. They are us.

And if your family isn’t Christian, please assure them that Jesus isn’t saying that you have to hate them.

September 1, 2013: The Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the book of Ecclesiasticus. It's one of those books the Catholic Church recognizes and other Christian Churches do not. The book is a collection of advice that falls within the tradition of wisdom literature. Here the author is advising the reader to choose humility over pride and to be gentle in carrying out business. In the Gospel, Luke talks of Jesus being invited a meal at the home of a Pharisee. He advises his followers that if they are invited, don't take the place of honor, but instead take a lesser place. If you do that you won't be removed from your place by someone greater, and there is a chance you may be asked to move up to the seat of honor.

When I was a child hearing readings at mass, many of them confused me, or just made no sense. This one was different: I got this from the first time I heard it. It doesn't take long in this life to figure out that there are social orders all around us and we are constantly trying to figure out where we fit in. Whether it was the sandbox at the local playground or the dreaded grammar school lunch table, we learned early on how to navigate this world, and more importantly, the penalty for misplaying that. Back then, and let's not kid ourselves, even today, there are few experiences more crushing than being told "you don't belong here; you need to move." How much better it is to aim low and be invited up, be told to join a group you were hoping to belong to. As far as advice goes, I think Jesus nails this one.

But honestly, does the reading really stop there? Is Jesus giving us advice that we've known about almost for as long as we can remember? That would certainly be a waste of his time, and this couldn't be what the Gospel writer thought important enough to record.

This is one of those readings where the first reading fits well with the Gospel. Both talk about the pitfalls of pride, and in the abstract I think we can all agree: nobody wants to be brought down a peg and the harder we fight to maintain a doomed position, the worse it seems to get for us. I'm guessing everyone is familiar with the troubles we've had here in San Diego with our newest ex-mayor, Bob Filner. He was a man with hubris written all over him. He honestly thought that his position made him bulletproof, and his power allowed him to act as he wanted. He thought he deserved the place of honor of any table he approached. Unfortunately, as happens with people who suffer malady of pride, it led to his ultimate destruction. It led him first to a series of unwanted and unlawful sexual advancements to women he worked with. When caught, he gave lip service to this and made promises nobody believed, but still thought himself invincible. In his final act, facing civil and possible legal actions, he resigned but even then announced he was a victim of a lynch mob.

How did this happen? How do all of these tales of hubris happen? Well, as often as not, it happens subtly. Good people like ourselves find a measure of success in what we do or what we attain. People affirm and compliment us and we respond well to it. Unfortunately what often happens with us is that we get used to being treated a certain way, and we come to expect it. Most of the time we are able to keep this in check. We keep our wits about us, or more importantly we always have people around who can call us if we begin to believe the hype about ourselves. In Bob Filner’s case, I think he just spent too much time in places where people served him and didn’t keep people around him who could call him out. He lived in bubbles and he was protected, and in the end it cost him. I like to think that Jesus was thinking of this as he dined at the home of a Pharisee. They were the smart guys in the room and their education made them people to be listened to. I think the fact that they were listening to Jesus made Jesus all the more aware of his need to not be fawned over. I have to confess I would love to have seen this on YouTube to see the dance over where everyone sat.

The trouble with choosing humility over pride, however, is also fraught with danger. Perhaps because we’ve listened to the author of Ecclesiasticus and to Jesus, we’ve made humility its own value and that can jam us up too. I used to work with someone in a ministry setting and he would joke that of all his talents he was perhaps most proud of his humility. And while Jesus is clearly warning us to avoid the place of honor lest we be embarrassed, I also think we can turn our pride in another direction. If, for example, we make a public show of choosing the lowest place, and make sure everyone sees us do it, I’m not sure that’s much better. I remember visiting a friend in another seminary and going into the chapel. There were several people praying the chapel but I was struck by the locations. That type of prayer is by nature quiet and there were certainly people there who were off by themselves. But I also saw that there were people praying who positioned themselves in such a way that you couldn’t miss them when you entered the chapel. I remember wondering if their energy was spent praying, or spent making sure I knew they were praying.

In all this dance of pride and humility, I find our newly elected Pope Francis compelling. He’s still in his rookie year and we don’t know him well but during and shortly after his election he made some decisions that struck me as being exactly in line with what Jesus is talking about. It’s no secret that being Pope is an easy trap for pride. There is absolutely no place you can go where you won’t be given the seat of honor. At least in the Catholic Church, nobody outranks you. For the rest of his life he will not have to scout out to room to see where he fits.

After the conclave ended and we all saw him, he did something interesting. The rest of the cardinals boarded the bus that would take them back to their residence. There was, of course, a limo for the new Pope. To the surprise of all of us he declined the limo and got on the bus with the rest of the cardinals. If that weren’t enough, his first act as Pope was to go back to the hotel and pay his bill. I wonder from time to time if he tried to get a refund for his return flight to Argentina

Pope Francis strikes me here as the person Jesus was talking about. I don’t want to deify him, he is as human as the rest of us, but I like how he does not appear to direct how the world treats him. It’s been a nice change.

And so what for us? We find ourselves all the time in situations like Jesus talks about. This past year I have been forced to change employers and I now work for an incredibly different organization. I’ve spent a great deal of energy trying to see where I fit, which seat is best for me, and it’s never easy. But readings like this remind me that in the final word I’m not in charge of where I fit. I like to think that having a place at the table is more important than worrying about where I fit.

I hope it means for all of us that we don’t choose pride, or the pride that hides itself in false humility. I hope we respond by using those times when we are in the lowly seat to be grateful for that seat. And I hope we use those times we are in the seat of honor to make sure those in the lowly seats feel welcome and included too.

August 25, 2013: The Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings at here

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the gospel Jesus answers the question of who will be saved by advising the people to "enter by the narrow door." He goes on to say that once the master has locked the door he will not open it again, even for those who claim to know him. He says that there will be great wailing and gnashing of teeth and that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

There was a scene in the 1982 movie Gandhi that always reminds me of this Gospel. In 1915 Gandhi sailed from South Africa to Bombay and was on the same ship as the incoming British Military Governor. A ship this large has several gangplanks and the Governor came down the main gangplank to a military reception complete with an honor guard and a band. Meanwhile toward the stern (back) of the boat, there was a much smaller gangplank where Mr. Gandhi (as a 3rd class passenger) departed.

If we think about these two gangplanks, the wide and fancy one; the small simple one, I think most of us want to see ourselves on the fancy gangplank. It was certainly true in this scene in the movie: while everyone on the 3rd class gangway was aware of the 1st class gangway, it was not the other way around. To the people on the fancy gangway, the simple gangway didn't exist. I also think that for the people who used the fancy gangplank, they would have found it a great insult to have to use the simple one. Had the Military Governor chosen to debark with Mr. Gandhi, it would have been seen as unacceptable.

The funny thing is that they both go to the same place and it really makes no difference which one they take. We do this gospel a disservice if we reduce this to “not many people get through because it’s narrow.” While it is a basic law of physics that you can move less fluid through a smaller tube, that’s not the point. Salvation isn’t a matter of being strong enough to push other aside and there is no quota. The gate isn't narrow to limit the number of people who get through.

I believe the gate is narrow because only those who recognize the need for God will see it. There are lots of forces on us to fight for our position. How many of us have gotten advice that we can't do what we think is right because it will cost us in "social currency"? How many of us worry about how we are perceived by those around us and don't worry about how our actions look in the eyes of God?

I believe the heart of this gospel is found in its last line: "For behold, some are last who will be first, and some who are first will be last." If Jesus had a mission statement, this would be it.

I don't mean this as some kind of a Communist Manifesto. I don't think that this reversal will empower the poor to get revenge on the rich. But on a basic level I think it means that there is a dichotomy.

What is the dichotomy? If we imagine all of us, yes all of us as passengers on the same ship, some of us will decide that our salvation demands that we pay attention to those who are on the 3rd Class gangway. Those who are comfortable on the 1st Class gangway and have no desire to recognize even the existence of the 3rd Class gangway will pay the price for their blindness, only because they don't acknowledge the need for all of us to get off the boat.

I think Jesus is telling all of us that the path to salvation isn't necessarily the one we choose. Only by choosing the 3rd class gangplank, do we recognize that there is more than one gangplank. Think about this: of the people who demand a place on the 1st class gangplank, how many of them will be comfortable being with those who departed on the 3rd class gangplank? If one of the perks of the 1st class gangplank is the ability to ignore the others we shared the ship with, how does that work with Jesus' demand that we call for even the least of his people?

Going back to the image of the narrow gate, perhaps Jesus is telling us to look to the narrow gate because it is only from that vantage point that we can see everyone. Only if all of us look to the narrow gate can all of see all of us, and only this way all can be saved.

August 18, 2013: The Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings at here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the prophet Jeremiah. He has prophesied that unless King Zedekiah repents from his wickedness, his kingdom will be destroyed. Because of this he is thrown into a pit where he will die. Another man asks that Jeremiah be rescued; the king reconsiders and Jeremiah is saved. In the gospel Jesus warns that his message will divide people, even within families

I don’t know about you but I really don’t like conflict. OK, maybe I do know something about you. I think most of us don’t like conflict all that much: that feeling in the pit of our stomachs when we see something we know is wrong. That troubling recognition that we need to decide what to do about it, that balance of trepidation and irritation that can soon turn into fear and anger. Do we intervene when we see a parent berating a child in a public place, or do we move on? What do we do when we see a coworker making clearly unwanted advances on another? Do we say something when we see our spouse or child acting in a way that we know isn’t their best selves?

At the same time we give great admiration to people who we see step into conflict, even when (or especially when) it comes at a price. Our first reading today is from Jeremiah and he is my favorite among Old Testament prophets. He is the most reluctant of that pantheon. He lives in a time when he sees that the rulers of Israel aren’t ruling in the best interest of the people. They are ruling for themselves and enriching their lives at the expense of everyone else. At the same time there is a part of him that doesn’t want to get involved. Speaking truth to power is never safe and he reaches his apex with the cry to God: “You have seduced me and I let myself be seduced!”

When God first called him, Jeremiah insisted that he wasn't old enough or articulate enough; I have to suspect also that Jeremiah knew that his prophecies would not make for an easy life. I once heard that the role of the prophet is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and Jeremiah needed to afflict some very comfortable people. As a matter of fact he afflicted them enough that they tried to kill him, and only at the last minute was his life spared.

We revere Jeremiah because he spoke up when he was supposed to. He spoke truth to power even when it cost him. We are unlikely to be called to something this dramatic, but as followers of Jesus we know that Jesus was. And if our call isn't as dramatic, there is still a call for us.

I like the juxtaposition of the 1st reading and the Gospel, Jeremiah and Jesus because I fear that we can water down the dramatic message Jesus demands of us. While we may admire Jeremiah, we are clearly called to emulate and follow Jesus. And when Jesus delivers the same harsh message to the leaders of his day that Jeremiah did to his leaders, it brings us a different message, and calls us to greater courage.

At the heart of this gospel I think Jesus is warning his disciples that his message is harsh, difficult, and will require greater things of them. So often we hear Jesus spoken of as a "good teacher" or a "moral leader." He was, but he was so much more. He spoke truth to power, and if we call ourselves disciples, so must we.

Looking at our media we seem to enjoy watching conflict (just look at my favorite oxymoron, "Reality Television") but we try to "live and let live" because all of us, myself included, don't like conflict. Troubling as I find this gospel, I see the message as clear: we are also called to speak up when we see injustice. I'm reminded of a quotation I first heard from Dr. King, but apparently goes back further: "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing."

There are many ways we can speak up, and perhaps the easiest is our vote on election day. But I also think it means that we do speak our truth when we see a child being abused (even if the abuser is the parent), or a coworker is being demeaned, or even when we see someone we love acting badly. I'll leave you with a quotation from the philospher Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. At the end of book 1 (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) Albus was speaking of Neville Longbottom: Neville had tried to prevent Harry from breaking a rule. Of Neville, Albus said this: "There are all kinds of courage. It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends."

August 11, 2013: The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings at here

The phrase that strikes me when I read this gospel is Peter's question: "Lord, do you mean this parable for us, or for everyone?" Peter has a way of asking a question that calls Jesus to a deeper meaning of his words and I think he did it here too.

This gospel is one of those that talks about the relationship between master and servant that doesn't always translate easily to the 21st Century. We don't have masters and servants, owners and slaves. At least we're not supposed to: we are rightly horrified at stories of what we now call human trafficking.

Because of this I think we often read this as a "you better get your chores done before I get home" or a warning about the end of the world. Readings like these have given birth to what I call the "rapture industry" and I think they miss the point.

We don't see master/servant relationships, but we do see relationships around us that speak to how power is exercised over others. The master in this gospel leaves his servant with at least some of his power before his departure. This leaves the servant with a question: what do I do with this power? Do I use it vindictively, to settle old scores? Do I use it as a way of getting out of working myself and unfairly burden the other servants? Do I use it to enjoy the feeling of power and authority over others? Or, do I exercise my authority in a way that tells that master that he made a good choice in me?

I think this has implications for some of what we see today. Many of us look at this gospel and think about good bosses we've had and bad bosses: we see it through the eyes of the other servants. I once worked for a company that promoted someone to management long before he was ready. I'm not sure when he figured out he was in over his head, but it was clearly long after his employees did. He mistakenly believed that respect and authority could be forced on others. His management style focused on berating people who didn't fulfill his expectations, placing disciplinary letters in their personnel files, and embarrassing his employees in public meetings. This obviously did not work; his employees avoided him when they could and spent so much energy hiding from him that productivity decreased. This has a happy ending. Eventually, after several members of his team quit, he understood that he needed a new model. He began to partner with his employees and give them the tools and encouragement they needed to do well: productivity went up and so did employee retention. He also found that he wasn't dreading meeting with his employees as much, and also wasn't dreading meeting with his boss. He became the wise servant.

It's easy to look at this only in relationships like employer/employee relationships and there is a cottage industry in labor law devoted exclusively to this. But there are many other relationships that should look to this gospel. Several years ago a friend of mine got a job as a hospice chaplain. He was just getting to know his coworkers, and one day he joined the nurse and home health aide on a visit to a patient. After the visit the three of them went to lunch at a local diner. It was an old fashioned place where the server wrote the orders on a ticket. When they finished eating they got the check and looked to divide up what they owed. My friend saw that while the server wrote down his order she had forgotten to put the price in the column on the right side. When she totalled up the bill she didn't include his meal and he easily could have gotten a free lunch. My friend immediately took the bill and brought it to the server's attention and paid for his lunch, and didn't give it much thought. Several months later the nurse on the team confessed that she was nervous when she saw the error. She wasn't sure what this new chaplain would do and was greatly relieved to see that he pointed out the error. My friend recognized that the nurse had given him power that he didn't even know about. Now I'm friends with this chaplain in large part because it had not occurred to him to take advantage of the mistake. But he learned that it mattered to his team how he reacted; had he taken the greedy way out, he would have lost the respect of his team.

I think Peter's question speaks to his concerns as one of the leaders of this "new way" Jesus was proclaiming, and I think it would do well for modern day clergy to recognize how it speaks to them. In previous generations priests were told they should act "in persona Christi" or "in the person of Christ." More recently we've seen the birth of the "What Would Jesus Do" bumper stickers and jewelry. I certainly believe all religious leaders need to pay special attention to this gospel, but I also think all of us do. We may not be masters who have power over servants, nor are we servants who have power over other servants, but we all have people who look to us and want reasons to respect us. We should all want to be the wise servant, who treated the other servants the way Jesus would have treated them.

August 4, 2013: The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings at here

Today's gospel is the primary cause of drug abuse in financial planners. All of us, from farmers to engineers, have times in our lives when we have more than we need, and these times tide us over for those times we don't have enough. Is Jesus telling us not to do that? There have been times in our history where people have tried. In St. Francis' lifetime he tried to do just that: ask for what you need, and only that, and trust that you will always get enough. That turned out to be unsustainable and counterproductive, and even the Franciscans now have endowments, building campaigns, and development offices.

Perhaps this gospel reading is not about "you'll go to Hell for saving too much grain," but is instead a warning about trusting too much in our safety nets. A few years ago the economy took a bad turn; it was largely due to the greed of a few people, but nearly everyone suffered. We saw our investments tank, and unemployment became a curse that landed at many of our doorstops. Older relatives have stories of the Great Depression where banks failed and whole industries shuttered. Others tell of even more horrific events: genocides, natural disasters, and the like. The man in the gospel didn't have to die to see it all be taken away: a famine or a war could have done the same thing.

It's not my intent to scare or depress you. For most of us, these things will never happen. But we need to understand that as people of faith, God does not guarantee us a life of no suffering, or even just the suffering we deserve. I think the first reading today is instructive. The writer is struggling with the purpose of doing the right thing, when it could all go away, or even worse, go to someone else less worthy. Does this sound fair? If the unjust benefit from the labors of the just, why be just? Several years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book based on Ecclesiastes called When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough and I strongly recommend it.

In the book Rabbi Kushner argues that many of us hold the idea that we know what we will need to be happy: we have to hit a certain income, or own a house, or have the right number of children. And then we fulfill those goals and wonder why we're not as happy as we expected to be. He believes that most of us do want the right things, but we are looking in the wrong direction. Things won't make us happy: what makes us happy is to live in harmony with God.

For those of us old enough to remember, bands of priests used to travel to parishes once a year or so and give parish missions. They were tightly scripted events: you would go to the church each evening and there was a different sermon encouraging us to "get back on track" with our faith. A common parable was told at many of these: A man walks out one morning to get his newspaper and realizes that the date is one year in the future. He recognizes that he now has a window into what will happen a year from now. Excitedly he opens to the financial page and begins to look at which stocks he will buy when the market opens in a few hours. After he has the list, he begins to read the rest of the paper. It goes well until he reads the obituaries and sees his own name. Suddenly the year ahead of him looks very different.

So how will this year look? After the initial shock, I think the man has a choice. He can spend the next year dreading that date, slowly dying, or he can do something else: he can regroup. Maybe he spends the year preparing his family, making sure things are in order, and living the kind of life he's always wanted. Spending time with family, travelling, whatever. The point is that he likely isn't going to watch the stock market in the hopes of getting wealthier.

And maybe that's the point I would make to the writer of Ecclesiastes. It is all vanity. Some of your labor will benefit others and we don't always withdraw exactly what we deposited. The people who lived through the Great Depression kept working, and eventually they recognized that they still had what was important. If your work doesn't provide you all that you want, it doesn't make it worthless. It pays in different ways and in ways that may never make sense, but valuable nonetheless.

And so, a tip of the hat to all the financial planners out there. We still value you, but as for me, I'm always going to be aware that my goal for me isn't necessarily what will happen to me.

July 28, 2013: The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here.

I have to confess that I dread the Sunday this first reading comes up. It's often proclaimed that the towns of Sodom and Gomorra were destroyed by God because they were practicing homosexuality. Those who proclaim this hint darkly that modern day occurrences like the recent Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage put our nation at risk for a similar fate. It's completely untrue and and is an unfortunate use of Scripture. Simply put, there is no way to draw a line between this reading and homosexual orientation.

OK, so now what? Yes, on another level I think this Scripture is misinterpreted. I think most people look at the conversation between God and Abraham and think this is some time of a negotiation. On its face that's what it looks like, but that interpretation assumes a few things that I think most of us find troubling.

As the scene opens Abraham asks God if He will really destroy all of Sodom, the just and the sinners, if there are fifty just men in the city. We've come a long way in the last 4,000 years in our understanding of God, but I am troubled that God would destroy everyone because some are sinners. Doesn't an all powerful God have the ability to pick and choose? That's what he does in Exodus when he kills the firstborn of the Egyptians. In the course of the dialogue God promises not to destroy Sodom if there are 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, then 10 just men. Was there such a low threshold only because of Abraham's intervention?

On some level the dialogue is moot as we see in Genesis 19 that God does indeed destroy Sodom, so we can infer there weren't 10 just men in the city. Does that mean there were 0, or that there were perhaps 9? Could Abraham have kept negotiating the number down to 1? If so, why didn't he? Did the city die because Abraham was too timid?

Is this reading not about negotiation, but about prayer? Is Abraham's intent here not to negotiate down, but to understand God? I suspect that Abraham has no illusions that he can convince God of his own desire (to save Sodom) as to understand better this God that he has chosen to follow. Is this a God who is vengeful, or a God who is merciful? Have I uprooted my family to worship a God who someday decide that I am sinful and destroy me? Or decide that some of my family are sinners and destroy all of us? Indeed, perhaps this dialogue is not for God to decide what to do, but for Abraham to decide what to do.

Prayer, in its purest form, is exactly that. It is our attempt to understand God, God's desire for us, and our response. Prayer is also at the heart of the gospel reading, and if the first reading is complicated, this reading is refreshing in its simplicity.

Whenever I meet a patient for the first time I ask him if he wants me to say a prayer at the end of the visit. Most say yes, but some say no. For some, prayer is a deeply private and intimate time with God, and will all due respect, I don't belong there. I had a patient decline my prayer once and he said this: "Prayer is not just words; it needs to go beyond words. When I hear someone pray for me, after about 5 or 6 words, he's just showing off." There's something to be said for this. I think there is always the temptation not so much to pray, but to be seen praying, and to be seen praying cleverly. When someone compliments one of my prayers I'm always a little nervous; I hope the compliment means I touched something in his heart, and not that it was particularly poetic and eloquent. A few chapters later in Luke, Jesus criticizes a Pharisee for a self congratulatory prayer ("thank you for making me better than anyone else").

When Jesus instructs us to pray he is setting the same tone: recognizing God's power and asking for what we need, and then stopping. But if God knows what we need, why do we need to ask for it? And, later in the reading, why does Jesus promise that if we ask, it will be given to us? I can't tell you how many things I've prayed for that I haven't gotten.

Perhaps this is where prayer comes full circle in the readings. Our prayer brings us closer to the mind of God, gives us a better understanding of God and His relationship to us. Only when we've started down that road do we really understand what we need. As children we were told to thank God before we started on our list of needs, and it was presented (at least to me) to make prayer more than our annual list to Santa. But I think the wisdom of that prayer form goes beyond the wish list. The prayer that has become so familiar that we call it "The Lord's Prayer" completes the work that our father Abraham started all the way back in Genesis.

July 21, 2013: The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here.

Today's gospel reading from Luke has always held a warm place in the heart of all of us who hate to do the dishes. It's also one of those readings that is so familiar to us that we can read the first few words and think we know all that it says to us.

I don't know about you, but all during my life I've read this reading and was told it was about the dichotomy between action and contemplation, between work and prayer. In this we are told that while there is nothing wrong on taking on Martha's role to serve, it's also critical that we take time to contemplate and pray. The implication was clear: the two balance each other. Prayer, done right, leads us to action and action, done right enriches our prayer. It was perfect for a religion class. The teacher emphasizes to the students that we need to do both and we will spend the rest of our lives honing the balance.

There's certainly something to this. Service without reflection tends to be like sailing without a rudder and reflection that does not lead to service is glorified naval gazing. But what if there is more to this reading? What if there is another entirely different message?

Many years ago I was listening to a tape by the Franciscan priest, Fr. Richard Rohr. He was speaking on the subject of liberation theology and how this is also a reading about inclusion. He offered the idea that Martha wasn't angry with Mary because Mary wasn't "pulling her load" or helping out with the serving, but because Mary was doing something that was not suited to women. He suggested that Martha was holding onto the belief, common at the time, that talking about theology was the domain of men only.

If this is true, that makes Jesus quite the radical, both for his time and beyond. If Jesus is telling Martha that Mary chose the "better part," he is saying that women have the same right to discussions about faith and belief as men. Perhaps this is a bit of a stretch in that Mary is understood to sit at Jesus' feet and listen (not necessarily participate), but just by listening she is taking an active role. Just by being in the room and hearing the words of Jesus she is part of the discussion. As with many gospel stories we don't have answers to questions that would make things clearer. Did Mary participate in the discussion? Who else was there? Were there men who welcomed Mary into the circle or were they upset that she wasn't serving? Was it just Mary and Jesus would have been talking to himself if Mary had been serving? What was Jesus talking about?

This interpretation would have been difficult in the first few centuries of our church. Tertullian, a theologian of the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, said this about women: "God's judgement on [women] lives on in our age; the guilt necessarily live on as well. You are the devil's gateway; you are the unsealer of that tree; you are the first foresaker of the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whome the Devil was not brave enough to approach; you so lightly crushed the image of God, the man Adam..." It goes on but you get the idea. Perhaps the message I received from this reading happened because the early church would not wrap its mind around Jesus liberating women to be equals to men in understanding theology.

Much of this prejudice is gone from us, but not all. Women, mercifully, are now seen as able to read Scripture and learn theology (though not be ordained, but that's grist for another sermon). Interestingly I think most of us learned our faith from women when we were children. But there are still instances when we tell people not to strive beyond their station, and I think that's where this reading speaks to us today.

A few years ago I met a patient who had come onto hospice service. He was a wonderful, joyful man. He was born in the Phillipines and joined the US Navy when he was 18, and he made it his career. When I asked him what job he did in the Navy he laughed and said: "Don't you know I'm Phillipino? I was a cook of course!" I didn't realize this, but when he joined the Navy in the 1950s, all Phillipino men became cooks. No other job was available to him. Fortunately he enjoyed cooking, but if he had tried to do something different he would have been told not to shake things up, not to go beyond what was mapped out for him. In other words, the other Martha's would have told him to stay in his place and serve.

When we do this, when we tell people that they can't do something, strive for something, or reach beyond what is laid out for them, we do grave harm. We do grave harm, not only to the Navy cooks who may have had the talent to command forces or develop code, we in power also hurt ourselves. We don't know who or why God has chosen a person for a vocation, we don't know how far someone can go if we block their way. We can't see each other as God sees us. And we can't tell a woman that she has no place discussing belief or that a bright, young Phillipino man can't step out of the kitchen.

Luke sets up this story to give us a dichotomy and has Jesus choose the better path. We should too.

July 14, 2013: The Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here.

This gospel holds a warm place in my heart as this was the first gospel I preached at Sunday mass, 21 years ago, and the issues are as timely today as they were then. Then again, there hasn't been a time in our history as a people where they weren't timely. The lawyer who posed the "who is my neighbor" question wasn't interested in who are his neighbors, but who aren't. Not "who must I include" but "who may I exclude." Not "who must I love," but "who may I hate."

It doesn't take much imagination to see how much of our public discourse these days. I'm writing this in the hours after George Zimmerman was acquitted of 2nd degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin. Much is being made of the fact that they are different races: Trayvon was black and George describes himself as Hispanic. What troubles me most about this lies in the fact that George was volunteer patrol in a neighborhood watch. I understand the need for protection in our homes, but what has happened when we need to be armed to protect ourselves from our neighbors? Instead of seeing them as people of our community, as those who live closest to us, we see them as those who want to harm us or steal our stuff. There is much of this case that we do not know, but we do know that George approached Trayvon because he was unfamiliar. Perhaps the fact that Trayvon was young and black contributed, but we don't know that. We do know, because he said so, that George approached him because he felt threatened.

In the gospel reading Jesus goes to some length to turn things around on us. The "good guys" who were supposed to help the traveller (the priest and the Levite) passed him by while the "bad guy" (the Samaritan) did the right thing. Why did this happen? Perhaps the priest and the Levite were afraid they would become unclean if the traveller died, and they reacted out of fear. The Samaritan, however, had every reason to ignore the traveller. Samaritans were strangers from a distant land with unfamiliar customs, and perhaps a different agenda. Sound familiar? I'm sure there were any number of disciples there who liked the story but wish Jesus hadn't picked a Samaritan to be the hero. But of course that's exactly why he did.

The happy ending to this gospel story is that the lawyer gave the right answer. We don't see him again (and don't know his name) and his actions after this encounter with Jesus are lost to history. I hope and pray that he came away from this with a renewed sense that we are all neighbors to each other. I wish the same for ourselves.

We live here in San Diego and we are backed up to the border with Mexico. Are they our neighbors? It's hard to look at all the fencing, the patrols, the floodlights, etc. and see that we are taking this story seriously. Our neighbors to the South, by and large, are not people for us to fear, but people who want to be with us. We should want to be with them also.

Links to the Homilies

July 14, 2013

July 21,2013

July 28, 2013

August 4, 2013

August 11, 2013

August 18, 2013

August 25, 2013

September 1, 2013

September 8, 2013

September 15, 2013

September 22, 2013

September 29, 2013

October 6, 2013

October 13, 2013

October 20, 2013

October 27, 2013

November 3, 2013

November 10, 2013

November 17, 2013

November 24, 2013

December 1, 2013

December 8, 2013

December 15, 2013

December 22, 2013

December 25, 2013

December 29, 2013