Country music has never been one of my go-to forms of entertainment. It’s not that I don’t like it. No, it can be quite entertaining. It’s just that there are a lot of other genres I find more enjoyable. I like to sing along and the sadness of so many of the country music stories just doesn’t often fit my mood.
So, it struck me as funny at the wedding reception of one of my children to hear the song, “Friends in Low Places,” by Garth Brooks. I’m not sure I had ever heard it before that day, but I really enjoyed dancing to it as I thought of some of my friends in low places – places where most of the guests at the wedding might never have had the chance to find friendships.
Two of these friends lived in the cemetery behind one of our local churches. It was a cemetery that had fallen out of use and was not being tended well. Graves dated back to the mid-1800s and the records of who all were buried there had been lost in a fire in the 1930s. John and Mary, not their real names, camped at the bottom of a small hill beside the cemetery. They took care of it.
Both were alcoholics. Both were chain smokers. I think John may have used other drugs as well. I don’t think Mary did, but she had/has a bipolar condition that doesn’t respond to medication. So, she self-medicates with alcohol and tobacco – not a totally socially acceptable way to handle life, especially for someone who really can’t work a steady job.
John had a family in another state, but he had long since left. His alcoholism and other problems got in the way of maintaining healthy family relationships. He died of a heart attack on the levee beside the river in his late 40s or early 50s. His father had died early of a heart attack too, I learned from Mary.
Where to bury his ashes became the big question. Mary was able to arrange for the parish priest to conduct a prayer service for him in the cemetery where they had been living. I was there with my young daughter. One of the men kindly shared his coat with her because she was cold. Their friends were surprised to learn that I was familiar with the Okanogan Valley in Washington, having grown up with close family friends there and having thinned apples at an orchard there one summer. They had worked in the same area as migrant workers, thinning and picking apples. There wasn’t a place to bury John, but at least we had a service for him and I made memorial cards to share with all.
A while later, it was arranged for John to have a burial spot on the edge of the cemetery, where he and Mary had lived for so long. I hope when the day comes to bury Mary, that she will receive a spot next to him. She still very much loves him.
One day, about a year after he died, Mary saw me as I walked across the cemetery after Mass. She has a very insistent manner of planting herself in front of the person to whom she wants to speak and there’s no doubt but what the conversation will occur! She had had a dream and it was worrying her. John had appeared in the dream. He was in a mobile home, on the bed, and was smiling at her. Was he OK? What did it mean? They had always dreamed of maybe one day having enough money to buy a mobile home and have a roof over their heads. Why this dream now?
I assured her that it was wonderful news. He had come in the dream to let her know that he is OK. He’s with God. He has a home now. I wish you could have seen the smile of joy dawning on Mary’s face. The one she loved is OK. He’s with God. God has friends in low places. At least one of them has a mobile home now!
Mary is still alive. I saw her again just this week. Her alcoholism has once again resulted in her having to leave the housing that had been arranged for her. She managed to remain sober for over 10 years, but the alcoholism and bipolar syndrome got the best of her again. She’s probably in her mid-60s now and plans to move to a larger city where she lived while she was in college. I don’t think it’s a wise idea. She has friends here who watch out for her and no one in the big city. But I can’t snap my fingers and make things right for her. She told me good night and settled in to sleep on the bench outside the church hall.
I have friends in low places too. Please keep her in your prayers.
The story of friends in low places and of John and Mary came to my mind as I read the selections from Amos, St. Paul, and St. Luke this week.
The prophet Amos warns those who complain about religious limitations on commerce and routinely cheat their clients, especially the poor. The Lord has noticed their actions their bragging about taking advantage of the poor. “Never will I forget a thing they have done!” (Amos 8:4-7)
In Psalm 113, we hear it said of the Lord: “He raises up the lowly from the dust; from the dunghill he lifts up the poor to seat them with princes, with the princes of his own people.” Like my friend John, the Lord gives them the mobile home they had always wished they could afford… “Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor.”
St. Paul approaches the question of the Lord’s care for all from a different perspective. (1Tim 2:1-8) The Christian community is very small and has little influence on public policy or the rulers of the land. Paul calls on the community to pray for everyone, “for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.” Paul is not hoping just for a lack of persecution of the Christians, he is speaking of the importance of quiet and tranquility in the lives of the entire community of people living in the area the leaders govern. The common good, with justice for all, is the responsibility of leaders. We are saved as we come to know the truth of God’s care and concern for all of us. Jesus, coming as mediator between God and us, is a prime example of one who has “friends in low places.” We must pray for our leaders and for each other – that we all work together for the common good, with tranquil lives for all as its fruit.
Jesus himself told a story that illustrates the point in a rather surprising way. (Lk 16:1-13) It seems there was a rich man who had a steward. The steward was a business manager, responsible for handling the man’s affairs. The steward had not done a good job of it. Things were a mess and the rich man was not happy. He called the steward to his office and demanded a report of all the accounts and their status. He told the steward that he intended to fire him. Now today, the steward would probably just have been fired on the spot and someone else would have to take on the job of sorting out the accounts. But the rich man gave the steward notice. A mercy towards the steward – one we may hope the Lord will extend to each of us too.
The steward, knowing that he was not going to be able to do manual labor and being too proud to become a beggar, had to figure out what he would do with his life from that point onwards. He was certainly not going to be getting a favorable letter of recommendation from his employer that would allow him to find another administrative job! There was no social safety net either!
He was a pragmatic man. So he found a solution. He called in the folks who owed his employer money. In each case, he arranged a credit for the debtor. For one person he cut the total owed in half. For another it was cut by 20%. He did this for all of the debtors. When the employer discovered what his steward had done, he was not angry. Instead, he praised the steward for having acted prudently. I suspect he might even have chuckled a bit when he received the report of what had happened, given his praise of the steward’s solution to his personal challenge. The steward now had friends who would help him in the transition time.
Jesus himself does not condemn the steward’s actions either. He tells those who are listening to learn from the example of the steward. Make friends for yourselves in your lives now. Jesus speaks of “dishonest wealth.” The word that is translated as dishonest wealth is one that refers to wealth or property in general. Jesus is telling us to be careful with the riches we have in our lives today, whatever their form. Be trustworthy with the gifts God has given you. These gifts you have today are very much less important than the great wealth of the kingdom of God and all the gifts of that eternal kingdom. Use them carefully. Share them generously. Treasure God’s “friends in low places” with whom you come into contact.
Remember these instructions from Jesus with me this week. In many ways, you and I are also God’s friends in low places sometimes. We walk together through our journey.
Find the readings for the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C.
“I will rise and go to my father.” (Lk 15:18)
Have you ever had the experience of doing something that you know was wrong and were hoping no one would notice? Perhaps you were embarrassed about it. Perhaps you were afraid of punishment. Perhaps you feared that what you had done could never be forgiven. Maybe you were a child and hid in a closet or out in the back yard for as long as you could, rather than face the parent whose anger or disappointment you feared. Maybe you simply didn’t respond to the letter or phone calls of the friend whom you had hurt.
Rejoice. You’re not alone. I think we all have had this kind of experience at least once in our lives. The peoples of the Bible had these kinds of experiences too. You are not alone, and you don’t have to stay in that frightened, embarrassed place forever.
Moses and the Israelites
Shortly after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses received the Law from the Lord on Mt. Sinai and presented it to his people. Then Moses was called again to the mountain of the Lord. The book of Exodus devotes many chapters to the encounters of Moses with the Lord and the reception of the Law. This time when he went up the mountain, he again disappeared into the cloud at the top and did not return for many, many days – forty days in all! The people waiting at the foot of the mountain became afraid. What had happened to their leader, the one who faced Pharaoh, the one who led them across the Red Sea and through the desert? Had he died? They believed that anyone who saw the face of the Lord would die. Who would be their leader now? Who would be their representative to God? They had welcomed the proclamation of the Law from Moses and offered sacrifice to confirm their agreement to it before he left again. Why was he gone so long? Maybe what they needed was a god they could see and touch, like the ones of the peoples among whom they lived.
Aaron, brother of Moses, was approached by a group of them, asking him to help them find a god whom they could worship and who would protect them. Not knowing what had happened to his brother, Aaron ordered them to bring gold jewelry and coins. He melted them down and formed a calf from the gold. Calves were worshiped by many of the surrounding peoples as representations of their gods. The people rejoiced and began to worship the golden calf.
Up on the mountain, the Lord noticed what was happening and was not amused. “Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved.” (Ex 32:7-11, 13-14) The Lord was angry and proposed to Moses that he would simply destroy them all, then make a new nation for himself from the descendants of Moses. This would have been the right and just thing for a monarch or a god to do, according to the experience and traditions of the nations at that time, so that is the response ascribed to the Lord in this account.
However, Moses boldly spoke up and presented a different option, imploring, “Why, O Lord, should your wrath blaze up against your own people… Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” and the promise made to them. With this reminder, “the Lord relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.”
Did that settle the issue forever? No. There was much more to the story, as Moses descended from the mountain, broke the tablets on which the Lord had written the Law, punished the people who had rebelled, and again returned to the mountain top for another forty days, so the tablets could again be inscribed with the Law. The relationship between the Israelites and God continued to be rocky through the centuries, but God always remained merciful. There were times when things went very badly for Israel and they interpreted the suffering that came to them as punishment for having offended God. But when once again peace returned and all was well, they rejoiced in the mercy of their God, who never left them.
The Psalms often speak of the loving mercy of God, asking God to wipe out our offenses, cleanse us of sin, and open our mouths to proclaim his praise. “A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” (Ps 51)
St. Paul’s Experience
St. Paul also experienced mercy from the Lord. Paul was the Roman name of a pharisee named Saul who grew up in Tarsus. Tarsus was a Roman city in an area northwest of Syria. Saul was a Roman citizen because of his birth in Tarsus, but he was also a Jew. He had studied in Jerusalem and was greatly distressed by the teachings of Jesus’ disciples after the resurrection. When the authorities began to arrest Christians, Saul was totally in favor of wiping out this new, heretical group. In fact, he was a witness to the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Those who were throwing the rocks at Stephen laid their cloaks at Saul’s feet for safekeeping as he looked on with approval.
Later, as the Christian community dispersed to other cities in the empire, Saul followed after them to Damascus, planning to arrest them, return them to Jerusalem, and witness their deaths. But the Lord had other plans for him.
On the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Saul. Saul was totally blown away by the appearance of Jesus. Jesus instructed him to continue his journey to Damascus. There he met members of the Christian community and became one of them. Thus began his long journey as a follower of Jesus and apostle to the Gentiles.
Many years after his conversion, Paul wrote to Timothy, one of the men who had been converted by Paul’s teachings and had become a companion on some of his missionary journeys. (1 Tim 1:12-17) Paul spoke of his experience of having received mercy from the Lord, despite his earlier attempts to wipe out Jesus’ followers. “I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.” It was through the mercy of God that Paul found a new meaning and way in life. A new kind of justice.
Jesus’ Stories of Forgiveness
Jesus embodied God’s approach to sinners. Sinners were anyone who did not live by Jewish Law and customs. As in any society, there are always folks who skirt the rules or refuse to follow them. Most people avoided contact with public sinners – tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves, and so forth. But Jesus went out of his way to speak with them. This brought constant criticism from the religious authorities. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Eating with someone who was a sinner, who was ritually unclean, made a person also ritually unclean. It was a big deal.
In response to the criticism, Jesus told three stories. (Lk 15:1-32) The first was about a shepherd who had one hundred sheep. One of them got lost. The shepherd left the ninety-nine and went in search of the missing one. When he found it, he returned to the rest of the flock and called his friends to celebrate with him because he had found the missing sheep. Jesus told his audience that in heaven, there will be much greater joy over the repentance of a sinner than over those who have always lived righteously. Like his listeners, we might wonder about the wisdom of leaving ninety-nine sheep to fend for themselves. In practical terms, unless others were watching out for the flock, the rest of the sheep would probably be gone by the time the shepherd returned with the stray. But Jesus takes it for granted that a true shepherd would care about the missing one too.
Another example of God’s extravagance is that of the woman who had ten coins. When she lost one, she lit a lamp and cleaned the house carefully, looking for the coin. When she found it, she called her friends and neighbors to celebrate with her because the coin had been found. Having recently found a coin that I had dropped and been unable to find for several days, I can appreciate her delight. For me the coin was not a huge issue, but I had been wondering where it had managed to hide when I dropped it. For her, the coin was much more important. Important enough to burn expensive oil in the effort to find it. Jesus explained again that the angels rejoice when each sinner repents. The cost doesn’t matter to God and the angels rejoice.
The final story is one we often know as that of the Prodigal Son. It might also be called the story of the Extravagantly Merciful, Welcoming Father. A son requests his share of the family wealth, takes the money and spends it all on wild living. Then he finds himself without resources in a foreign land as drought and famine rage. Eventually he comes to his senses and declares, “I will rise and go to my father…” The son intends to ask for a job as a servant in the household, but his father, seeing him coming down the road, runs out to welcome him. He treats him as a much-loved son and restores his position in the household. A great celebration then begins, with no expense spared, to welcome the son back to the family.
The brother who had remained with his father is very hurt and angry at the way his father treats the one who had gone away and wasted the family resources. He refuses to enter the house and join the celebration, considering his father’s actions to be unfair. But the father of both young men explains, “now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again.”
Like the Extravagantly Merciful, Welcoming Father in the story, we are loved and welcomed by our God, who is a parent to us. Sometimes we really make wrong choices. Sometimes we deliberately do what we know is wrong. Sometimes we don’t do what we know we should do. Like the Israelites in the desert, or Saul on the road to Damascus, or the young man who went off and spent his share of the family money, our actions can be very wrong. Yet God does not punish us. God doesn’t interfere with our free choice to turn away. But God always wants us to return, not to be afraid to come back. The circle of love is always open to receive us again. We just have to turn back and accept the big hug that God wants to give us. The justice of God is not something to be feared. The justice of God is extravagant mercy and love. Today, tomorrow, and always.
Thanks be to God!
Find the readings for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
In towns and cities around the world today, we find spaces dedicated to the development of physical strength and endurance. With so much of the labor in our contemporary society being done with minimal physical exertion, people do not develop the same degree of physical strength as the majority even of children did in the past. For example, those who manually milk cows twice a day will typically have greater hand strength than those whose task it is to attach the cow to the milking machine and let the machine do the work, to say nothing of those who pick up a jug of milk at the store on the way home from work at a desk job. Those who must grind the corn to make the tortillas for their family’s meals will typically be stronger than those who may simply open a bag of corn bread mix and stir it into muffins or who buy a bag of tortillas at the grocery store.
Both men and women go to gyms and spas to work out and/or relax. There are machines to exercise specific muscles and others to promote general fitness. Pools for swimming, hot tubs and saunas for relaxing, free weights for lifting, and stationary bicycles are all features of these locations. For those who want to go a step further, there are classes and personal trainers to guide them to a higher level of performance.
For children, there are other options to develop strength and coordination. Schools have times for playing outside. Older grade children have physical education periods or games classes. There are the after-school sports as well: swimming, soccer, football, basketball, baseball, fencing, water polo, and so forth. Those not inclined to sports may sign up for dance classes or other physical activities, including riding their bikes or skating.
We take for granted that these activities will not necessarily be easy or non-tiring, especially if there is a coach involved, who will challenge participants to move past their normal comfort level and increase their strength.
With this need for physical activity and training in mind, the words of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews take on a different sense than if they are taken at face value. (Heb 12:5-7,11-13) At face value, it sounds as if the Lord is a hard task master, quick to punish harshly: “… those whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.”
Part of the challenge we face in understanding this teaching is our tendency to use the word discipline to refer to punishment. I think this is an unwise practice, though it is very widespread. People are much less likely to object to disciplining a child than to punishing the child. It’s generally the same action, but discipline sounds more positive, less harsh, so we use that term.
In this reading, the word translated as discipline is also used to mean “training,” “correction,” and “guidance.” We are the children of the Lord, sisters and brothers of Jesus, who passed through a time of tremendous trial and suffering on his return journey to the Father. We too are called to learn how to be God’s children, following the model of Jesus. The Father treats us as a loving parent would, guiding and correcting our actions, so we learn better how to make right choices and live as channels of divine love in the world. In many ways, it’s like the work of a personal trainer or coach, helping us keep going and developing increased strength at each step along the way.
Now does this mean God gets mad and punishes us, as we human parents all too often do with our own children? No. God does not punish us or strike out in anger against us. God is love. All God has to offer is love and, as a result of that, the freedom to respond in love or not. When we choose not to respond in love to the people and events we encounter, we experience the consequences of our decisions. God does not jump in and put up shields to stop the response of those we have harmed or failed to help. They are also children of God, loved equally and equally free to respond with love or not. We experience the consequences of our behavior. With any luck at all, we learn better ways to respond.
Like any parent, sometimes I think God chuckles at our insistence on doing things our own way and sometimes God cries because we have hurt others or have ourselves been hurt because of our own actions. But through it all, God is there, like a good parent, coach, or trainer, helping us to meet the challenges we face and grow stronger in love and wisdom. God encourages us to hold on and keep trying. Every time we goof up and make a mess of things, God is there to provide the strength needed to try again and again.
Does God only care about a few human beings, or only those from certain cultures or genetic lines, or religions? Once again, the answer is a resounding “NO!” Isaiah speaks again and again of the fact that the God of Israel is truly Lord of all peoples on earth. (Is 66:18-21) In symbolic language, Isaiah describes the gathering of peoples from all the known world, led by witnesses of the Lord’s glory, who proclaim that glory among the nations. Peoples from all the nations will travel to the Lord’s holy mountain, Jerusalem, as an offering to the Lord. As the Israelites carried their offerings to the temple in clean, purified vessels, the animals who carry the travelers are like purified vessels. All come as offering to the Lord and they become God’s family in all senses of the word. Some will even be selected to serve as priests and Levites (assistants to the priests in the temple), roles historically limited to direct descendants of Aaron and Levi.
The circle of those who train in God’s gym or grow as God’s children increases to include all peoples of the world.
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” How exclusive is the Kingdom? How hard will it be to be saved? Is there hope for us? St. Luke tells us Jesus addressed this question from someone he met on the way to Jerusalem. (Lk 13:22-30) “Strive to enter through the narrow gate…” Jesus replies to the questioner. It’s not easy to be a child of God. It takes practice and persistence to learn God’s ways. Like athletes in a race, it takes conscious effort and endurance to get successfully to the end of the race. Simply calling oneself a friend of Jesus is not enough. Those who reach and enter through the narrow gate will be those who act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God (as we hear elsewhere from the prophet Micah 6:8). Those who enter will come from all the nations of the earth. Those with the least glory and honor in the eyes of the world, as measured by wealth and status, will be found in numbers among those entering through the narrow gate.
The journey to God’s kingdom is not easy. It is not limited to only a few. Indeed, all are welcome. But it is not guaranteed that all will be ready to enter the gate. There is much to learn as we go through life. Many lessons we must learn. Sometimes we learn easily. Sometimes we’re more hard-headed and it takes longer.
Today let us rejoice that God is a patient parent, a loving coach, who helps us grow to be true children of love – children whose lives are such that the life of God can pour through to others in our world. In those areas we find difficult, may we receive the grace to open our eyes and see the better way God has for us to open to love and share it. When we get discouraged, may we hear the Lord speaking to us through the voices of family, friends, and companions on the way. Then may we again take heart as we move forward step by step. When our hearts freeze and refuse to love, may we experience the gentle touch of the Lord’s hand, warming our heart so we can again embrace each other and our loving, divine parent: our God.
Welcome to God’s Gym. Enjoy your workout!
Find the readings for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere – a time of increased risk of wildfires and the destruction they can bring. Two years ago, we experienced the power of fire firsthand, as the CZU complex fire swept through the forests outside Santa Cruz, destroying the homes of friends and the businesses of many, as well as delaying the start of school. Beginning with a huge dry-lightning storm on Aug 16, 2020, the fires burned out of control for over a month, before they were contained. Shortly before Christmas, Cal Fire believed the fires were completely out, but actually, they continued to burn deep underground in the redwood forests into 2021. September 9, 2020, the skies turned red-orange in the daytime here on the coast and the day remained dark, as ash fell from the skies. We rejoiced the next day when the fog came in and our skies around Monterey Bay were washed clean. The fog continued to wash the air for the next few days and the darkness did not return here, but other areas were not so fortunate. The smoky tinge in the skies continued for weeks, even here.
Blessedly, we have not had such devastating fires here on the Central Coast since then, but fires are blazing in other areas throughout the Western states, Canada, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Siberia as I write today. Skies are fiery red-orange. And fire season is far from over.
I am thinking of that experience, looking at the clear sky which nevertheless carries a slight hint of the reddish color that comes from the smoke of fires burning in other areas and reading Jesus’ words, “I have come to set the earth on fire.” (Lk 12:49)
Really? Are you sure that’s a good idea, Lord? People can get hurt! Fire is not a force to mess with …
Jesus speaks these words about setting the earth on fire to his disciples. A large crowd has gathered and in the past two weeks we’ve been hearing Jesus as he teaches the crowds about the importance of holding lightly to things, trusting God to provide for their needs. He has spoken very clearly to his closer followers, those who were his disciples, about the importance of servants being prepared for the return of their master. When Peter asks Jesus whether these teachings apply to all or just to his closest followers, Jesus assures him that it applies to all, but most especially to those entrusted with more responsibility – the servant placed in charge of the master’s household.
It is at this very point that Jesus makes his astounding statement – “I have come to light a fire on the earth … Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? I assure you, the contrary is true; I have come for division.”
The proclamation of the Kingdom of God is not something that is gentle and unchallenging. The message Jesus brings is not all sweetness and light. It’s not for the faint of heart or those unwilling to risk drawing negative attention to themselves.
Jesus knows that he himself runs a great risk of falling afoul of the authorities and of being punished. He is afraid of what is ahead for him: “I have a baptism to receive. What anguish I feel till it is over!” He is not unaware of the fate of prophets.
Yet he persists. He speaks the words of the Father. He calls the world to justice, to care for the weak and powerless, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, share of the abundance of the world among all the peoples, regardless of their “worthiness” to share in it. He even takes his message to the seat of power in his land: Jerusalem and the leaders there.
Setting the earth on fire … so new life will spring forth for all.
The prophet Jeremiah ran into trouble too when he spoke the Lord’s words. Jerusalem was facing destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. The Lord instructed him to tell the soldiers and the king to surrender rather than try to fight off the empire. Those who were determined to fight spoke against him to the king: “Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he is demoralizing the soldiers …” (Jer 38: 4-6,8-10) When King Zedekiah threw up his hands and let them have their way, Jeremiah was lowered into a mostly dried up cistern – a well – and left there in the mud to die. He was rescued when one of the king’s trusted advisors reported what had happened to Jeremiah. The king then sent the man with three others to rescue Jeremiah from the cistern.
Zedekiah did not ultimately take Jeremiah’s advice. He and his troops were badly defeated. His family was killed and he was taken away as a prisoner. Most of the people were also killed or taken away as captives. The few who remained did not unite and work together. They fought each other for power. It was a time of tremendous upheaval. Jeremiah continued to speak the Lord’s words, arguing for peace and cooperation among those who remained, but he was mostly ignored. It was a long time before the Jewish people returned to their homeland from exile in Babylon. But that’s all part of the longer story.
Jeremiah spoke the words he received from the Lord. The words were not received positively. Fire was ignited upon the earth, but not because Jeremiah remained silent. Human voices and actions are needed by the Lord. And humans choose how to respond. All too often they respond with violence and conflict.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews speaks of a “great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before all of us on the journey of faith. (Heb 12:1-4) This reading follows a long presentation of the history of the Lord’s calling of His people, beginning with the sacrifices of Abel and Cain at the beginning of the human story and continuing with the calling of Abraham and those who followed. Those who came before Jesus did not have his example or the certainty of the resurrection to carry them on their journey of faith. We are blessed to have the model of Jesus and his endurance of the cross and its shame as we face misunderstanding and opposition to the message we carry and the way of life we have chosen. We keep our eyes on Jesus as we live, trusting in the ways of God.
With the Psalmist and all those who have come before us, including Jesus, we pray, “Lord, come to my aid!” (Ps 40) We wait for the Lord, who pulls us out of the cisterns in which we find ourselves, puts a new song of praise into our mouths, and thinks of us, though we are poor and afflicted. We are blessed by a God who comes to our defense.
Even in the face of the fires kindled by the message of the Lord.
Does this mean we are to fight each other and that divisions among us are OK? Absolutely not! We are called together to work on behalf of those who are denied the basics needed for human dignity – food, clothing, shelter, heath care, education, justice …
As followers of Jesus’ Way, members of the Kingdom of God, the lives we lead, the message we bear, the friends we make along the way, will seldom be “typical” of those of the rich and powerful in our world communities. We will discover that “hard work” and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” are not sufficient or possible for those without basic resources. It’s impossible to use bootstraps to advance upward when one does not even have flip flops!
As Christians, we are called to join our Lord in setting the earth on fire. Make good trouble. Speak out for those whose rights are being trampled. Share resources. Fight for health care for all. Defend women’s rights. And those of our non-binary sisters and brothers. And those who flee violence. And, And, And … so many others! The forgotten ones of our world.
Pray for me and I will pray for you. May we see the Lord in those around us. May our eyes be opened to the ways we put people in boxes or cisterns because we don’t want to hear what they have to tell us of the Lord’s vision for them and for us. May our ears be opened to the cries of God’s little ones who cannot provide for themselves. May our hearts be touched with tenderness when we meet the Lord on the street, or in a jail, or securely hiding behind the gifts of security they have received.
May we have the courage to embrace the fire of Jesus’ message, so new life can spring forth in our dry hearts.
Readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C
A life of faith – what is it and how does it happen?
It seems to me that a life of faith is an adventure, begun by each individual person, with many companions discovered along the way. For some, it is a gradual experience of growing up in a family or community of others who are travelers on the way. For others, it’s a process of growing into faith through the example of friends or colleagues. Once in a while, it’s the result of an unanticipated encounter with the Lord that opens new worlds and paths.
Regardless of how a life of faith begins, it is a long-term commitment.
The author of the Book of Wisdom, spends many chapters reminding listeners of the history of faith of the Hebrew people. In the reading for this Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, he reminds his audience of the night of the Passover. (Wis 18:6-9) He is writing in the city of Alexandria, about 100 years before the birth of Christ to remind the Jewish community there of the ways God worked on behalf of their ancestors and how those ancestors responded. He has described the events leading up to the exodus from Egypt, including the many plagues. Now he reminds them and us that the Lord warned the Hebrews of the final blow against Pharoah. Families were to gather, offer a lamb in sacrifice, put its blood on the door frame, then roast and eat it together. The bread they would eat was to be unleavened, as if they were running away and there was no time to prepare a meal properly. That night, the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Hebrews. The blood of the lamb on the door frames identified and protected them. This event was and is celebrated annually ever since that first Passover night.
The Hebrew people had held on to the faith of their ancestors for hundreds of years by the time of these events. They remembered the Lord’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When they left Egypt, they took the remains of Jacob and his son Joseph with them to the Promised Land.
The Psalmist sings of the great blessing it is to be one of the Lord’s own in Psalm 33. The Lord has chosen a people for his own inheritance. “Exult, you just, in the Lord.” The Lord delivers his own from famine and death. He is a help and shield. “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.” Not just in easy times, but also through the ups and downs, the hard times of life.
The faith of another ancestor of the Hebrew people is given as an example in the Letter to the Hebrews. (Heb 11:1-2, 8-19) It’s not at all clear who the author of this letter was or to whom it was addressed. It was written before 100 CE. It has been attributed to St. Paul, but most likely it was another of the early Christian missionaries. The author speaks of faith as something hoped for that comes to be – something that gives evidence for what cannot be seen. He gives the example of the lives of Abraham and Sarah.
Abraham and Sarah were from Ur, an area in modern day Iraq. They had traveled with family to an area north of Palestine. Then, following the Lord’s call, they moved south into Palestine. They lived there as traveling shepherds for most of the rest of their lives. There was a brief time in Egypt as well, but mostly they lived in Palestine.
Through a variety of encounters with the Lord, Abraham was transformed from a man named Abram to become the father of two great nations – Jewish and Arab. His descendants became “numerous as the stars” as the Lord had promised. But it was not without trials and difficulties along the way. The author of this letter points out, that the focus of Abraham and his wife Sarah was on the new homeland to which they had been led. They never owned the land themselves. They were always “strangers and aliens” there – much as Green Card holders are in the United States. If Abraham and Sarah had wanted to do so, they could have returned to the land of their birth, but they had found a new Lord and received the promise of a new homeland from him. They held on to that promise, even when it seemed the Lord was demanding the sacrifice of the son of their old age.
A life of faith takes many twists and turns. It’s not always easy. Things aren’t always clear. Some things can be very difficult.
“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock…” Jesus speaks these words of encouragement to his followers. “For your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom … where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Lk 12:32-48) It’s not easy to trust that God will provide whatever is truly needed. He has just spoken of the rich man who built a new barn to hold his abundant harvest, but would die that night! Trust God, he tells them and all of us. Lilies in the field are beautiful. They don’t fret or work for their beauty. You are worth much more than the flowers. So don’t be afraid. God will provide what you need too.
Yet Jesus knows that it’s hard to wait sometimes. We can start out being very trusting and sure that we are ready for whatever will come in our lives as followers of the Lord. We want to be ready when we meet him in our lives now and later. But there is a danger too. It’s easy to get discouraged or distracted, to fall into the habit of doing things that benefit us personally rather than building up the kingdom. Jesus warns that those who are given more responsibility and greater gifts are expected to use them as intended by the one who gave them these gifts. “More will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”
These are serious words. In a life of faith, the initial excitement and wonder of the encounter with the Lord is a great starting point. But excitement wears off and the realities and challenges of daily living creep up on us again. God’s time is much longer than ours. God’s plans take longer to bear fruit. We are part of the plans, and so are many other people. We travel together, encouraging each other, helping each other through the rough times, rejoicing with each other in the good times.
Faith is both a personal and a communal commitment. How can I help you in the journey? How do I depend on you for help? Will I be humble enough to ask and accept your help when I need it? Where do we see the Lord? Where do we refuse to see him? Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief – an old rhyme, but perhaps important to remember. We might add, immigrant, refugee, invading soldier, LGBTQ neighbor or family member, woman, child, gang member, ex-convict, bossy relative … Where do we see the Lord?
Let’s pray for each other, that we be able to continue on this long-term journey of faith. Reaching out to our world and all we meet with eyes that see others as children of God, sisters and brothers, may we be people of patient, persistent faith. May we rejoice in the adventure as we discover the face of our God in so many others and in so many places. A life of faith is not to be something hard that weighs us down. “Do not fear, little flock!” The Father wants to give us the kingdom. May our eyes be open to see the kingdom, our ears be open to hear it, and our hearts be open to receive it as we move through the days of our lives.
Click for a lovely musical setting of Do not fear from Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam
A few weeks ago, a neighbor child was out with her father, walking the dog before bedtime. I was out pulling weeds in the front garden as they came by the house. As we were visiting, she noticed the sparkly glass mosaic gems we have in the curb around the front yard. She was entranced by them. “What are they?” “How did they get there?” “Can I have one?”
At the school my children attended, these gems are known as ‘dragon tears,’ so that’s the name I gave her for them too. Did I mention, she was entranced? I told her I had some extras and would bring one to her soon. They went on their way and I finished with the weeds.
The next week, I stopped by their house with a few things to share. Her parents were away, but I was welcomed as always. Later that evening, as I returned home from a walk, I met the children, dog, and sitters. The first thing out of the mouth of the child was, “You didn’t bring the dragon tears!” I had totally forgotten that she was expecting them. I assured her that it was a terrible error on my part and I would certainly get them to her and her sisters.
When I got home, I learned the rest of the story. The group of them had come to the front door and knocked. When I didn’t come right away, they began calling for me. Eventually someone came to the door and explained that I was out walking, so they went on their way too. She was hoping to find me while they were out. It was shortly afterwards that we met on the way.
The readings for this Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time speak of asking and receiving with the confidence of a child. When last we saw Abraham, he was walking down the road towards Sodom with his three guests. (Gen 18: 20-32) As they walked, one of the guests, who turned out to have been the Lord, thinks over whether to share his thoughts with Abraham. Deciding to do that, he shares that he has heard bad things about the behavior of people in Sodom. He’s going there himself to see whether they are true. If they are, he plans to destroy the city.
Abraham is dismayed. His brother and family live in Sodom. So Abraham begins to bargain with the Lord. “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? What if there were fifty innocent people in the city? … Far be it from you to do such a thing, to make the innocent die with the guilty.” The Lord agrees not to destroy the city if there are fifty innocent people there.
Abraham does not stop at fifty. He persists, asking about forty-five innocents, or forty, or thirty, or twenty, or ten. Each time, the Lord agrees not to destroy the city for the sake of those ten innocent men.
That’s as far as we go this week. Unfortunately for the city of Sodom, there was only one good man and his family in the city. He was warned in advance and left the city with at least some of his family before it was destroyed. But that’s another story for another time. The important thing to note this week is that even the Lord God is willing to listen to requests and change plans when one of his children asks, politely but confidently.
The Psalmist (Ps 138) sings of the Lord’s kindness, hearing “the words of my mouth.” The Lord strengthens us, preserves us from our enemies, exalts the lowly, completes what he has done for us. “On the day I called for your help, you answered me.”
St. Paul (Col 2:12-14) speaks of the death and resurrection of Jesus “obliterating the bond against us,” and removing all barriers between humans and God. This extends to the division between Jews and Gentiles as well. We are now all children of God because of our link and union with God’s Son, Jesus.
St. Luke (11:1-13) tells of the time Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray. This was and is a common thing. Students ask their teachers to show them how to do something. The teacher shares the way they have learned to do it in the best way they’ve found.
The words Jesus gave to his friends sound quite formal, maybe because we’ve heard them so often in formal settings. He begins with a single word in this version, Father.
The word Father sounds very formal in families in which that is not the title used to address the man who is the father of the children. In many families, there are affectionate names used to address this parent. Some of them include Dad, Daddy, Papa, and Pop. The term Jesus used is “abba,” an affectionate name like Papa or Daddy. It indicates the closeness of very small children with their male parent.
So, what do we say to our Papa God? May your name be holy (a power and strength of great wonderfulness). Your kingdom come (may your leadership and rule fill all of creation). Give us each day the food we need (very practical request). Forgive us our sins (we mess up regularly) for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us (uh oh, this is challenging). Do not subject us to the final test (don’t ask more than we can do).
These are very concrete instructions. Not a lot of fancy words. Pretty much covers everything that needs to be said, though.
We might be tempted to think it’s too much to ask. We might not believe that our heavenly Papa cares enough about us to hear our requests. And what if I want or need something more than bread?
Jesus continues with more encouragement to trust. We know that our friends and neighbors might not be willing to help if the time is inconvenient. Jesus reminds us that even in the middle of the night, when all are asleep and getting up to help is totally inconvenient and disruptive, persistent requests that could become even more disruptive will get a response from another human. Someone shouting at the front door is likely to be noticed. He continues, “ask and you will receive; seek and you will find.” Humans give good gifts to their children. God will do no less. He concludes the thought with, “How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
We may not get exactly what we’re asking if it’s something material or if another person is not willing or able to grant our wish or be open to healing in a relationship. But we will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit present and living in our hearts and minds. Ask and you shall receive. Call God Papa, or Dad, or Pop or Father. Whatever affectionate name for a very special parent you would use, because that is who our God is.
Then ask for the blessings of seeing God present in all of creation and in our lives and relationships. Ask for practical things like food for the day, or impractical but wondrous things, like the mosaic gems my little friend is hoping to receive. Ask with the confidence and persistence of a child.
Will things materialize out of nothing? Probably not. Often there’s a basis from which the Lord works to respond. Then again, some things might not be for the glory of God or for your own best spiritual interest, so those requests may be answered differently than you expect. But you might be surprised where and how God’s answers to your requests appear. Sometimes, you might even be the one whose actions make the prayer of another answered.
Now where did I put those dragon tears?
Sometimes it seems there are not enough hours in the day to complete all the tasks expected of each one of us. We get up in the morning filled with hope that today will go as planned and expected. Then as we get started, something else pops up that demands attention, or someone calls who needs help. The entire day’s plan has to be set aside. Maybe tomorrow …
Yet sometimes, those disruptions lead to very special outcomes. I remember one afternoon many, many years ago when the front doorbell rang just as I was preparing to go out the other door with my very young daughter to buy groceries. A young man was at the door. He said he had come to meet with my husband. (As it turned out, he had a software program to present and my husband was expecting him. I didn’t know he was coming, but he was expected.) I called my husband, who came out of the office to welcome him, and I went on my way.
When I returned home, groceries in hand, my sons asked, “Mom, did you bring a chicken and an onion? John (not his real name) is going to fix dinner for us.” I responded, “Who is John? And yes, I brought a chicken and an onion.”
That evening’s dinner was wonderful and the start of a long, rich, sometimes hilarious, friendship with John.
The story of Abraham and his three visitors (Gen 18:1-10a) which we hear in the readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time is similar in some respects. Abraham is sitting in the shade, near the door of his tent, on a very hot day. The location is described as “by the terebinth of Mamre.” For those hearing the story centuries ago, this was an important detail, telling quite precisely where the events about to unfold occurred.
For the rest of us, a bit of background. A terebinth is a type of tree that grows to be quite large – almost like a very large shrub, with many stalks growing from the same root, but like a tree because of its final height. The name Mamre is a reference to a specific area of land in southern Israel, west of the Jordan River. An ancient Amorite chief named Mamre lived in the area and helped Abraham when Abraham’s brother Lot was in danger. Travelers frequently passed through the area and eventually it became a pilgrimage site for peoples of many belief systems.
Three men suddenly appeared nearby. Abraham wasn’t frightened by their sudden appearance. Instead, he ran to greet them, bowing before them in welcome and asking them to stop for a while, wash their hot, tired feet, and have a bite to eat before going on their way. The men agreed to stop.
Abraham hurried to the door of the tent and asked his wife Sarah to prepare rolls for the meal, using their best flour. He chose a tender young steer from the herd to be butchered and prepared for the meal. Then he got out curds and milk to serve with it all. It was a feast, not just a quick sandwich and glass of water!
Abraham served his guests and waited under the tree as they ate. When they finished, they asked Abraham where Sarah was. They knew her name, though it would not ordinarily have been part of the conversation at that time. Sarah was in the tent – women did not come out to welcome strange men who were passing by their homes. One of the visitors promised Abraham that within a year, Sarah would have a son.
The reading for this day ends on this note. It doesn’t tell the rest of the story. Here’s some of the rest of it. Sarah laughed when she heard such a crazy thing. She and Abraham were both old. She was well past child-bearing age. She had been unable to have children. Such a thing was impossible. But such a thing came to pass. And when it did, she and Abraham named the child Isaac, a name meaning “I laughed.”
Abraham realized only later that afternoon, as he walked on towards Sodom while visiting with his guests, that the visitors were the Lord and two of his messengers. But that is another story for another day.
For Abraham and Sarah, that day’s time spent in service to unexpected visitors was blessed and rewarded bountifully. They chose the better part in welcoming their guests.
The Psalmist reminds us, those who do justice “will live in the presence of the Lord.” (Ps 15) Where do we find the presence of the Lord? In acts of kindness and justice, in speaking truthfully about others, in refusing to hurt a neighbor or innocent ones, in lending resources freely without demanding payment of interest. These are the ones who do justice. This is where we find the presence of the Lord. Choosing the better part…
St. Paul points out to the Colossians (1:24-28) that in the hardships he has endured, the body of Christ is being built-up. As his words and his very presence have been rejected by his own Jewish community, the door has opened for Gentiles, non-Jews, to become believers in Christ and part of his body, the church. All peoples of the world can now become perfect in Christ. Again, the better part…
Finally, we hear the story of Martha and her sister Mary on that fateful day when Jesus and his friends arrived for dinner. (Lk 10:38-42) It is a story that has long troubled me and many others. Why, oh why, would Jesus have told Martha that Mary had chosen the better part? Who was going to make sure all of those people got something to eat if the women of the family didn’t get busy and prepare the meal? Why should one of them alone get to sit with the guests, when she herself (Martha) would love to have been sitting there too if it were not necessary for someone to behave responsibly and prepare the meal?
Yet Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…”
How do we choose the better part? Where does the time appear? Will everyone get a meal? Will the bills get paid?
As I move through the years, I’m beginning to be a bit more reconciled to the idea that taking time out to be with the Lord and listen is not necessarily a bad or foolish thing! (Now, please don’t laugh too loudly here! Some of us learn more slowly than others.)
I’ve come to believe that it’s actually possible to do some of both, maybe all of both – be with the Lord and have time to care for home, family, and those around us. A prayer when waking up and greeting the day, Morning Prayer (at some time before noon on really busy days), the Angelus at lunch time or when fixing dinner, a smile and thanks to God for the sunshine or a child’s remark or a meal shared, a call for help before speaking with a troubled friend, a recognition that God is present there in the kitchen as meals are being prepared and the dishes are being washed, a word of gratitude while falling asleep. All are times and places that God is found to be present. When we keep our eyes and ears open, we can hear God’s voice in the daily round of activities.
If we are able to slip away during the day or go away for a day or two on retreat, that’s a great gift. It can help refresh and renew us. But we mustn’t wait for those times. Find them during the day. Be open to the surprise visits the Lord will make during ordinary days. Visit with a friend who calls. Welcome and spend time with guests, expected or unexpected. Share a smile with a person at the grocery store. Wait patiently for the adult who is dealing with a tired, hungry, angry child. Use the time in the line at the store to pray for those around you and be grateful that you can be there yourself.
Choose the better part!
P.S. If you’ve got time for another story, here’s one from my life in 2009. https://blog.theologika.net/having-a-martha-like-day-on-the-feast-of-st-martha-july-29/
Reading these words, “something very near to you,” I find myself wondering, what is very near to me? What do I treasure most? What is a fundamental part of me that might not even be consciously mine? Do I even know what is very near to me?
As Moses and the Israelites approach the promised land after forty years of travels through the Sinai Peninsula and lands to the east of the Jordan River, he realizes that the time has come to pass the leadership of the community into younger hands. He is now old and the end of his days is at hand.
In this first reading for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Moses gives some final instructions and his final plea/dream to the people. “If only you would heed the voice of the Lord … and keep his commandments…” (Dt 30:10-14) He calls on them to return once again to the Lord, “with all your heart and all your soul.”
Early in their travels, Moses had gone up to the mountaintop and received the tablets containing the Law from the Lord God. He brought the Law down to the people and it became the foundation of their way of life and traditions. Sometimes they followed it well. Other times not. Always it was the basis of their agreement, their Covenant, with God.
As it becomes obvious that Moses will not be leading them when they enter the new land, they must have wondered, who will now bring the Law to us? Who will be the intermediary with God? Where will our leader need to go to find God and bring instructions to us?
Moses corrects the notion that the Law by which they live is something mysterious and remote that needs to be found in the sky or across the sea, or in some other far-off land. No one needs to travel far to retrieve and bring it back to the people so they will know how to live. He tells them, “No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”
What is written in the Law?
St. Luke brings us a picture of what it means to live according to the Law. (Lk 10:25-37) A student of the Law, a person who had spent many years studying Jewish laws and tradition, asked Jesus a question. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus went right back to basics. “What is written in the law?” The man responded with a condensed statement of Mosaic law. “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
This answer was absolutely correct. No need to add anything more. No need to travel to the sky or across the sea. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus assured the man that nothing more would be needed.
Then came the follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?” This is one we all need to contemplate. Is my neighbor the person living next door, on my block, on the other side of the block, my village, my region of the country, my country? How far out do I need to go before those I meet cease to be my neighbor and I no longer need to love them?
Today we often hear, “There’s an app for that!” We might equally well say, “With Jesus, there’s a parable for that!”
Jesus told a story. There was a man who was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho. This was a mountainous area, with lots of bandits along the way. He was attacked, beaten, robbed, and left half-dead beside the road.
Two men passed by the wounded traveler, but moved to the opposite side of the road as they walked by him. Neither stopped. One was a priest, the other a Levite.
(Time out of the story for a bit of explanation. Priests were descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses, who offered sacrifice in the temple. They were subject to strict rules of purity and behavior because they entered the most holy places. Levites were members of the tribe of Levi, descendants of the third son of Jacob and Leah. Levites assisted with services and worship at the temple, but were not priests. They filled roles that we would call musicians, song-leaders, acolytes, lectors, greeters, administrators, guards/guides, artists, designers, and so forth. They were held to higher standards of purity in obedience to the Law, but not as high as those for priests.)
So a priest and a Levite passed the man. The story doesn’t say whether they were on the way to Jerusalem or on the way back, but it really didn’t matter to Jesus. The point was that they were people who had higher than average position and responsibility in society and in worship, and they did not stop to help.
Another traveler came along the road. This person was from Samaria. Samaritans were hated by Jews. They were descended from some of the people who had been left behind during the Babylonian exile. Their land had been conquered earlier and the survivors had adapted their religious beliefs and practices to include some of what came from the conquerors. They worshiped on mountaintops rather than in Jerusalem. Folks traveling between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north tried to go around Samaria or spend as little time as possible there. These were not folks one would expect to find as heroes in a story told by a good Jew.
Yet this is exactly the person Jesus presents as the hero of the story. The Samaritan sees the injured man and takes pity on him. He gives first aid, loads him on his own donkey, and takes him to an inn. He cares for him there overnight, then leaves money for the innkeeper to continue caring for him, with a promise to reimburse any additional costs as he (the Samaritan) returns along the way.
Jesus asks a simple question, “Which one of these three … was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” The answer is clear – the Samaritan who was merciful. Jesus agrees and adds, “Go and do likewise.”
The command of the Law was closer to the heart of the Samaritan in this case than to the other two travelers. Care for the one in need of help, whoever that is, trumps ritual purity and practice or other societal norms.
Would it be closer for you or me? Hmmm.
How can all of this be possible?
A hymn from the early church, shared by St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians, gives a hint of how this can be possible. (Col 1:15-20) “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” All things were created through him and for him, even the great principalities and powers of the spirit world. Everything is held together because of him. He’s the head of the church, his body. The fullness (God) dwelt in him, the human man, and reconciled all things through him. Peace between God and creation was achieved through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
We are the body of Christ. We, the human members of the community. Jesus lives in us and we in and through him. Because of this, we have a real chance of living the law of love that he taught. The law that Moses says is “something very near to you” and Jesus presents as the foundation of loving a neighbor as ourselves.
Is living the law of love always easy? No. Is it always the popular thing to do? No. Is it always totally clear how to live? Not always, but there are hints if we keep our eyes and hearts open. Do our cultures and societies make this very easy? Not really. It’s much easier to love those who are like ourselves and with whom we share experiences, language, and culture. Do we have to love other folks anyway, even if we don’t like what we see? Yes. Can it just be an intellectual, “My heart goes out to you?” No. It must be practical.
“Go and do likewise.” “It is something very near to you … you have only to carry it out.”
Lord, help me to listen to your voice speaking through my heart. Help us to come together in loving service.
During the past few weeks, the divisions among peoples and nations have once again come starkly into focus in the United States and around the world. Recent decisions by the Supreme Court have upset precedents that had long seemed established. Revelations regarding the events on January 6, 2021 make clear the potential fragility of the American system of self-governance. War continues to rage in Ukraine. Other conflicts smolder around the world. Political parties bicker over what needs to be done and how to do it. Fires, earthquakes, drought, and famine plague many around the world. And COVID-19 continues to cause illness and death.
We might be tempted to feel sorry for ourselves – a “woe is me” type of moment, perhaps. Weren’t things always better in the past? But no, they weren’t. Things have always been hard at times. Not exclusively hard all the time, mind you. Things have also been wonderful, maybe mostly wonderful. Yet the wonderful times have always also been punctuated by harder times that make people grateful for the boring, everyday-ness of most of life.
Through it all, God is present, working from within the hard times through ordinary people, to bring about the happier times and restore peace among peoples and families. The Kingdom of God is here, rising from the ruins of broken relationships and societies.
On this Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the prophet Isaiah (66:10-14c) speaks the Lord’s words to the people of Israel at the end of their period of exile in Babylon. They are returning to their own land, to cities that have been destroyed and a temple that is in ruins. Ancient warfare left cities leveled, just as we are seeing today in Ukraine. It took a bit longer, perhaps, but the cities were destroyed and the land laid waste. The conquerors wanted nothing to be left to those whom they defeated.
So now the people return to their devastated homeland and what does the Lord say? “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her… I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river … as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you…” God is present with the people. Their city will rise again. God will comfort them like a mother nursing her child. Intimately. Tenderly. With love and dedication. Up close and personal. Sweet and filling!
Isaiah’s words are for us too. Our world has been turned upside down in some ways. Yet the Kingdom of God is here because God is here with us in the midst of the challenging times. “The Lord’s power shall be known to his servants.”
In a different, happier time for Israel, the psalmist rejoiced at God’s deeds (Ps 66) – “Shout joyfully to God, all the earth.” God has acted with power to protect the children of Adam. The sea was changed to dry land, a passage opened through the river (Jordan). The Lord is present with his people. “Blessed be God who refused me not my prayer or his kindness!”
The theme is continued in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (6:14-18). The reading for this week is from the end of the letter. He has presented his argument about the reasons for not requiring Gentiles to become Jews before becoming followers of Jesus and members of the Christian community. He states his position clearly. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything in terms of salvation. The only thing that matters is to become a new creation, based on the cross of the Lord and our sharing in the redemption it brought. Paul notes that he has himself suffered physically because of his faithfulness in proclaiming Jesus’ death and resurrection. He ends his letter with a wish of blessing for the members of this community. It is a blessing familiar to us even today. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters.”
Jesus, too, shares this message. “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” St. Luke (10:1-12, 17-20) tells us that Jesus selected seventy-two of his disciples and sent them ahead of him to the towns he was planning to visit. They went in groups of two. He gave them very specific instructions about what to take with them, what to say, where to stay, what to eat, and what to do if people in a town didn’t welcome them. They were to cure the sick and share the message of the coming of the kingdom of God wherever they went.
Jesus wasn’t living in a free and independent country. He was living in a conquered land, with overlords who took whatever they could get from the land and the people. Large numbers of people grew cash crops, for use by the empire, and had little left for themselves and their families. Soldiers could force people to carry their gear. Tax collectors were allowed to take as much as they could get, even above and beyond what was due. Anyone who opposed the Romans would be killed. It was not a great time in Israel. Yet he had arrived – the kingdom of God was at hand! His disciples were charged with sharing that news.
It’s interesting to note that Moses also selected seventy-two elders to help with administration of the camp and keeping order as the people moved through the desert in the years before they entered the Promised Land. Perhaps that’s part of the reason Jesus selected seventy-two disciples to alert people to the coming of God’s kingdom. This time of his coming was one long awaited.
The disciples returned with great rejoicing. Their mission had been well received and “even the demons” had obeyed them because of the power of Jesus’ name. Jesus notes their success and cautions that even more important than this power they have experienced is the fact that their own names are known by God in the heavenly kingdom.
In the midst of the troubles and hardships experienced by the Chosen People at the time of Jesus, the ruins of the former glory of their nation, the Kingdom of God has arrived.
Do we believe that God’s kingdom is present here and now as well? When things go differently than we would have chosen, can we trust that God will stand beside us in the ruins of our hopes and dreams and lift us up to the joy of the new Jerusalem and the kingdom? Will we let the Lord cradle us as a mother cradles her infant, and will we nurse as a well-loved child, secure and trusting the one who provides all we need? Will we have the courage to go forth and proclaim the love of the Lord and the Kingdom of God in our own world through our patient work to care for the most vulnerable among us? Will our commitment truly be to support children, families, women, immigrants, refugees, non-binary folks, the elderly, those with special needs? This is where God is present. In the “ruins” of social systems that favor the few and are willing to discard the rest, we find the Lord present and working.
The Kingdom of God is here, opened for us by the coming of Jesus.
When I was a little girl, getting ready for first grade, my mother was quite worried. I loved to sing. This would not typically be an issue, but two of my favorite songs were from the musical Oklahoma. The songs in question were not something lovely like “Oh what a beautiful morning,” or something rousing like “Oklahoma.” No, my favorites were the ones sung by Ado Annie, the young woman with a less than stellar reputation for faithfulness or prudence in relationships. These songs, especially in the Broadway play version we had on our record, were quite risqué. Mom was afraid I would sing them to “Sister” and scandalize her (whoever she turned out to be). As soon as the movie version, with more family-friendly lyrics, was available, she bought it for us and that was the record I was allowed to enjoy.
Of Ado Annie’s two songs, “I Cain’t Say No” and “All Er Nothin,” the one that comes to mind and is running through my head after looking at the readings for the Thirteen Sunday in Ordinary Time, is “All Er Nothin.” Annie’s boyfriend, Will, has just returned from the big city, Kansas City, with tales of what “modren livin” is going to be – indoor plumbing, gas buggies goin by theirselves, buildings twenty stories high, etc. Will has heard rumors that Annie hasn’t exactly been the most faithful girlfriend while he was away. He confronts her in the song “All Er Nothin,” declaring “With me it’s all er nothin. Is it all er nothin with you?” She asks for clarification, and the song continues with examples and conditions. If you haven’t heard it, it’s worth checking out. (The same goes for “I Cain’t Say No”!)
In the first reading, Elijah the prophet receives instruction from God to anoint Elisha to be his successor as prophet. (1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21) Elijah has been in trouble with the rulers of the land off and on for a long time. He has just met God on the mountaintop, recognizing his presence in a gentle breeze. Now he has been sent to find the man who will succeed him as prophet in Israel.
When Elijah found Elisha, the latter was plowing the land. He had twelve yoke of oxen, the large team of a prosperous family. Elijah didn’t spend any time explaining why he had come or what his plans were. He simply approached Elisha and threw his cloak over him. In this way, he signaled that the cloak of prophet of the Lord was now his too.
Elijah didn’t stick around to explain what his action meant. Elisha understood immediately what had just happened. He ran after Elijah and requested permission to return to his family and tell them goodbye. Elijah didn’t refuse the request. He simply told Elisha to go back, adding, “Have I done anything to you?” At this Elisha makes his decision. He kills the oxen, burns his plowing equipment to cook the oxen, and gives the meat to the people to eat. Then he follows Elijah as an apprentice, learning to be the Lord’s prophet. All or nothing …
The psalmist sings in praise of the Lord, who is a refuge, gives counsel, is faithful, leads on the path of life and is his inheritance. With the Lord, nothing is lacking. (Ps 16)
St Paul writes to the Galatians (5:1, 13-18) with a similar theme. A huge controversy was raging over whether non-Jews (aka Gentiles) had to become Jews and be subject to the Law of Moses in order to become Followers of the Way (aka Christians). Paul said no and so did the leadership in Jerusalem when they were consulted. The reasoning backing up this decision included the understanding that the Law had been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. The new Law of freedom to love took the place of the old laws that dictated what, where and when people were allowed to engage in particular activities. There were food prohibitions, rules about when and how work could be done, with whom one might speak, and many more. The new freedom to act in love superseded these old rules. If someone needed to be helped on the Sabbath, for example, then the new law required Jesus’ follower to help. No foods except blood, meat from strangled animals, and foods sacrificed to idols were prohibited. Women and men were equally children of God.
This new freedom did not mean license to do whatever one wished – that would be a question of acting according to the flesh. No, to act according to the Spirit required doing what would be best for the other person, what one would wish for oneself. Service in this new freedom is based on love. Only in love can one live in the Spirit. It’s again a question of “All er nothin!”
Finally, we see Jesus as he sets out for Jerusalem for the final time. Luke (9:51-62) describes Jesus’ single-minded focus on this journey. If those in the Samaritan village didn’t welcome them, OK, move on to another village. No time to stop and try to change their minds or punish them either! If someone offers to follow Jesus, OK, but know that we’re not going to be settling down anywhere along the way. “The Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” (Son of Man was a term used in reference to the coming Messiah in Jewish tradition. Jesus used it to refer to himself.) Someone else wanted to go home and bury his father, but Jesus had no time to wait. “Let the dead bury their dead.” In other words, Let those who are not with me take care of each other. “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” It’s all or nothing!
These are strong words and images. How do we understand them today? Are we to take them literally? How do we act in loving freedom to address the pressing issues of our day? Wars are raging, between nations, between gangs, between religious groups… Refugees are camped at the borders. Some are allowed to enter. Others with equally horrendous stories of probable personal danger are turned away. Issues of protection of the vulnerable among us divide our communities. Who is to be protected and how far will we go to help? It’s all well and good to speak in generalities. Who will pay the ultimate price of decisions that are being made far away by folks who don’t know us or our situations?
It’s not an easy time. We are called to the Law of Love, to the Freedom of the Spirit. Let us pray today and in the days to come for the courage to respond wholeheartedly, in prayer and in compassion, to the needs of our sisters and brothers. Not relying on logic and rules, but on the requirements of loving support and accompaniment.
The second Sunday after Pentecost we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. On this day we remember Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper, when he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. He told them to take it and eat it. It was his body, given for them. They were to do the same in remembrance of him. He also took the cup of wine that would normally close the meal with a toast to God. He told his friends it was the cup of the new covenant in his blood. Again, “Do this … in remembrance of me.”
How, you ask, do we know this? It’s there in the Gospels, but they were mostly written later. Today, however, we hear one of the earliest voices telling of this event. St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, tells us of Jesus’ words and actions on this last night of his life. (1 Cor 11:23-26) Paul doesn’t say he was an eyewitness. He wasn’t and never makes that claim. But he tells us that he is passing on to us what he had been told by the eyewitnesses. This is what Jesus did and said.
It’s important to understand what it means to remember in Jewish tradition. Remembering means to enter again into the reality of what happened. When we remember, we are present at the event. When we share in the bread and wine at Mass, we are present with the disciples in that upper room when Jesus spoke those words and shared that bread and wine. A traditional Jewish saying goes like this, “Our ancestors crossed the Red Sea and our feet are wet.” Jesus gave that bread and wine to his friends, and we receive his body and blood just as they did. We are now part of the New Covenant with God.
OK, so why the emphasis on eating and drinking a sacrificial victim? And how can bread and wine take the place of a real animal sacrifice?
Humans have a long history of offering something of value as a sacrifice to their deities. It may be to ask for a favorable outcome in daily activities. It may be to ask the deity to have mercy and take away something that is causing hardship to the community. It may be to give thanks for blessings received. There are many reasons for offering a sacrifice.
In pastoralist communities, especially before money began to be used commonly, a gift of a young animal as sacrifice was not uncommon. The animal might be killed and the entire body burned in sacrifice. Sometimes, choice parts of the animal were burned and the rest was shared and eaten by the priests or together with the community. Blood of the animal might be poured on the altar and burned as part of the sacrifice too.
For the Hebrew people, the blood of a lamb held a powerful meaning. It was the blood of the lambs sacrificed for the meal shared by the people on the first Passover that marked their doors and protected their children from the Angel of Death who moved through Egypt, killing the firstborn children of people and animals. This truly was blood that marked a covenant of protection between God and his people.
We see a different tradition of sacrifice in the first reading, from the book of Genesis (14:18-20). Abram, not yet known as Abraham, had entered the land promised to him by God, along with his brother, Lot, and their extended family. They had been there many years already, including a time in Egypt. Abram was living in the western part of the land and Lot had moved with his family to the eastern side.
There were many kings in the area and a great battle broke out among them. Lot was captured by those in the east. Abram gathered a large group of men from his side and set out to rescue Lot. His actions were successful. It was quite a battle and a major victory for Abram and his allies. The victorious kings gathered to celebrate with Abram and praise his success. One of the men who came was Melchizedek. He was known as king of Salem and was a priest. Melchizedek brought bread and wine to offer in sacrifice to God. He offered the sacrifice and blessed Abram, describing him as “blessed by God most High, the creator of heaven and earth.” As was customary, Abram gave a tenth of what he had in thanks to the priest.
Melchizedek is remembered in Jewish history and celebrated in Psalm 110. “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” Jesus is also described as a priest forever, the new high priest who needed only to offer sacrifice once to redeem all the people – to restore harmony between the Most High and humanity.
We again see bread blessed, broken, and shared in today’s Gospel. St. Luke (9:11b-17) tells of the day a large crowd of people went out into the countryside to hear Jesus and bring their sick to be healed. At the end of the day, it was time to eat. Jesus’ disciples asked him to send the people to the local villages to get something to eat. But Jesus responded, “Give them some food yourselves.” This was not at all feasible to the minds of the disciples. There were around 5,000 men in the crowd! (That didn’t necessarily include any women and children.) They had among themselves only five loaves and two fish. Nowhere nearly enough to feed all of those people.
But Jesus was undeterred. “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty.” (Fifty people would be about like having a good family party.) He took the little bit of food he and the disciples had, offered a blessing, broke the loaves and fish, and gave them to the disciples to feed the crowd.
Who knows whether people laughed or stayed solemnly quiet at this bold action of faith. But food was in plenty for all. In fact, there was more than enough. After all had eaten their fill, the scraps were picked up and filled twelve baskets! Did people share what they had brought with them? Not at all unlikely. Does that make it less of a miracle? Not really. We humans don’t always share very freely.
One commentator on the Gospels, Stephen Wilbricht, CSC, in a series of explanations for Lectors and readers of the Gospels, has noted that this story is placed between the account of the time Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to preach the good news and the first time that Peter professed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. The preaching is followed by service (the feeding of the hungry). Out of that service, came the realization that the time of salvation was at hand. The Messiah had come at last.
The fact that there were twelve baskets of food left is also important. Twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve disciples. Twelve baskets of food. This is enough for all and represents all.
We remember. We celebrate. We believe.
Today we remember what Jesus has done for us. We celebrate and participate in it. We believe what we have heard. We also believe what we have seen and experienced. We have seen communities of peoples of all nations coming together as one family of God. We have seen resources shared. We see work for social justice. We hope for peace and security for all to return to our world.
This day we begin a three-year celebration of Renewal of our understanding and celebration of this mystery of Jesus’ gift of his Body and Blood. We celebrate this gift in our Eucharist. It is the “source and summit” of our lives as Christians, as taught by the bishops in Lumen Gentium – the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church – at Vatican II.
Marty Haugen wrote a song and Mass setting many years ago that sums it all up nicely. The refrain goes like this:
“We remember how you loved us to your death, and still we celebrate for you are here; and we believe that we will see you when you come in your glory, Lord. We remember, we celebrate, we believe.”
Let us remember today and in the days to come. Let us celebrate this great gift. And Lord, help us to believe always this great good news of God’s presence and loving entrance into our lives.
Fifty days after the celebration of Passover, Jews celebrate another great festival, Shavuot. Shavuot is a celebration both of the early summer harvest (in more southerly climes) and the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai in the early days of the 40 years the people traveled in the desert following the Exodus and before their entry into Palestine.
The first reading for Pentecost Sunday, fifty days after Easter, describes an event that forever changed the lives of Jesus’ followers. They had been staying together as instructed, spending time at the temple in prayer, and waiting to see what would happen next. It had been a pretty amazing set of weeks since the Resurrection. When would they see Jesus again?
That morning, as they were gathered for prayer together, they heard what sounded like a strong wind blowing. It filled the whole house. Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire that separated and rested on each of them. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”
The Holy Spirit – the holy Breath of God – came to each of these men and women who were close friends and family of Jesus. They experienced the love and joy with which God holds each one of us in this moment of deep union. The Holy Breath of God breathed in them, surrounded them, and set their hearts on fire with love.
Sometimes these experiences of the presence of God are very quiet and not externally obvious to other people. But this was not one of those times. The noise was noticed by people outside the building. A crowd began to gather. There were people in town for the festival of Shavuot from all over the known world. It was one of three annual celebrations that brought visitors to Jerusalem for prayer and celebration every year. But this was something different. What was the noise all about?
Then something even more astounding was noticed. These uneducated Galileans were speaking and each person could understand what was being said. There were no spontaneous translators. There was no need for translators. The words spoken by Jesus’ friends were heard in the language of the people who listened to them in the crowd. What words were they hearing? They were hearing “of the mighty acts of God.”
The reading from Acts for this Sunday stops at this point. But take a little time and read more on your own. You will hear about Peter speaking to the crowd, pointing out that it’s too early in the day for them all to be drunk. What the crowd is hearing is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy about the coming of the promised one. Peter shares the good news of Jesus’ coming as Messiah, of his death and resurrection, of the new life promised to all. Many people believed what Peter told them and asked to become a follower of Jesus too.
There is a story in the early Hebrew Scriptures that is meant to explain how it came to be that there are so many peoples and languages on Earth (Gn 11:1-9). In this story, all humans spoke the same language and could understand each other. But they got too confident in their own ideas and ways. They decided to build a tower to the heavens so they could never be scattered. The Lord saw what they were doing and intervened, making them unable to understand each other’s words. Without a common language, they scattered to all parts of the world. The tower is known as the Tower of Babel.
The events of Pentecost were in direct contrast to what had happened at the Tower of Babel. Now peoples from all over the world understood the words spoken to them. It was not necessary for all of them to become one again. God came to them and met them where they were and loved them as they were. For this to happen at the time of remembrance of the gift of the Law, the Torah, is especially noteworthy. The Torah was/is the guide for living a life pleasing to the Most High. And now, the Holy Breath of the Most High is breathed out into peoples from all over the world, speaking many different languages, and living in many different ways.
All are one in sharing the love of the Father. And all can be different in the gifts and perspectives they bring to the community. God is Father to peoples of many lands. It’s not necessary for all to be identical.
The other readings explore aspects of this reality. There are two options for both the Epistle and the Gospel readings. St. Paul writes to the people of Corinth (1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13) about the variety of gifts given by the Spirit within the community. He notes, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also is Christ.” Regardless of our background, we are all part of the same body and share in the one Breath of God as source of our life.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul contrasts the status of those who live only according to ordinary human ways with those who live in union with and according to the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead. Without the presence of the Spirit, there is no hope for the deeper life and freedom of the adopted children of God. It is the Spirit, the Holy Breath of God, who bears witness to this and makes it possible for us to call God “Abba, Father” (or as we might say it, Dad).
Usually, the Gospel reading follows directly after the second reading, but on Pentecost Sunday, there is another prayer, the Pentecost Sequence, which traditionally has been sung. “Veni Sancte Spiritus” Come, Holy Spirit, come! With this song we ask the Spirit to come into our lives too, with all the gifts and fruits of faith, hope, love, peace, joy, and richness that a life of faith includes. As we open our hearts to receive these gifts, we grow in faith. Our own individual gifts deepen and we know the joy of being loved by God.
The two options for the Gospel both come from St. John. The first option tells of Jesus’ visit to his friends on the evening of the Resurrection (Jn 20:19-23). After greeting them and showing them his wounded hands and side, he wishes them Peace and tells them he is sending them now as the Father sent him. He breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit (Holy Breath), to bring forgiveness of sin to those whom they meet.
The other option comes from a section of Jesus’ teaching at the Last Supper ( 14:15-16, 23b-26). Jesus promises to ask the Father to send another Advocate to remain with them forever. This Advocate will be the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father in the name (power, authority) of Jesus. When the Advocate comes, he will teach Jesus’ followers everything and remind them of what Jesus has told them.
Again, the Holy Spirit comes to enlighten the minds and hearts of the followers of Jesus. He doesn’t come to make everyone identical. He doesn’t expect everyone to do exactly the same thing or to think exactly the same things. What he will enable is for these many people to share their gifts and talents in love with the rest of God’s people in our world.
We celebrate the time of the Spirit at Pentecost. God lives within us now, breathing life and love into our daily activities. Teaching us new things as new situations and understandings of how creation works come to light, God does not expect us to remain frozen in time at some ancient date. We live and learn of the wonders of creation and of God’s presence in each person.
Come, Holy Breath of God. Fill our lives with your presence and open our eyes to see you in all the wonders of your world and the people with whom we share it.
May this day be filled with joy as you celebrate with your families and communities this great gift.