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Posted by on Sep 4, 2022

As Easy as Falling Off a Log?

As Easy as Falling Off a Log?

When we were children, my siblings and I used to enjoy walking along the top edge of logs in the forests and parks we visited. Some logs were small and near the ground. Others were very thick and we might find our heads were as high as our parents’ heads as we walked along, holding tightly to their hands. There was always the very real fact that we might at any moment miss a step and fall off the log. Mom or Dad would help us when we tottered and nearly fell.

As we got older, we got more certain of our footing and walked by ourselves across the logs, arms outstretched to maintain balance. Sometimes we made it across safely. Other times we found ourselves jumping as we fell off. Once in a while, an ankle got twisted or we landed ungracefully on the ground. Most of the time, we simply got up and tried it again.

Even as an adult, it’s fun to walk on a log sometimes. I’ve now been in the position of holding the hands of younger siblings, cousins, my own children, and even my grandchildren as they learned to walk on a log. There’s always the unspoken question, can you do it? Can I still do it? Will we fall off this time?

Falling off the log is much easier than balancing and walking along the top of the log. If the log is a bridge across running water or across a ravine, the stakes are even higher. Falling off can still be easier than getting across.

When the Lord asked Solomon what gift he would like as he began his reign as King of Israel, Solomon asked for the gift of wisdom. He explained, “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends?” (Wis 9:13-18b) It’s hard enough for humans to figure out their own plans. What to do when troubles come? What career to pursue? Where to find food and shelter? Whose respect is worth courting? Solomon rightly notes that the things of heaven are even more important than the concerns of daily life, but they can be even harder to figure out. What is it that God would want us to do in this particular situation? Is it always the same? What might be different this time around?

Yet Solomon trusts that the Lord will send his ”holy spirit from on high” to help those who ask for help in finding the straight path through life. With the help of the spirit of the Holy One, humans can walk across the log of life securely. Finding the ways of heaven is not as easy as falling off a log. But the spirit’s gift of wisdom helps us walk securely across the top of the log – finding the ways of heaven in our lives each day.

Even before Solomon became king, the Hebrew people recognized the hand of the Lord in their daily lives. The psalmist notes, “In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.” (Ps 90) Our lives are short, yet through them we grow in wisdom of heart. We wish for the kindness of the Lord and receive it, as the work of our hands is aided by the Lord. That steadying hand of the Lord helps keep us balanced atop the log we walk!

As Jesus walked along on his way to Jerusalem, great crowds followed him. He was a celebrity and folks wanted to be associated with him. Would there be a miracle worked? Would he notice me and perhaps praise me? Isn’t this exciting?

St. Luke tells us that Jesus wanted folks to understand clearly that simply walking along with him in the midst of a great crowd of excited people was not what it meant to be one of his followers. (Lk 14:25-33) So Jesus turned to the crowd and spoke to them. The words he used sound quite harsh to us today. “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Hating? Just a minute now, you say. Isn’t this supposed to be about loving each other?

When we today speak of hating someone or something, it’s a very negative notion of extreme revulsion, distaste, antipathy, or hostility that may stem from anger or fear, or a sense of having been injured by another person. But in the context of Jesus’ time, it meant something different. Hate is part of a pair of words that describes behavior. It is the opposite of love, which also refers to a specific type of behavior. It’s not a question of emotions. To “hate” a ruler, for example, means to rebel against that ruler. To “love” the ruler means to obey that person. Jesus wanted those following him to know that there would be times in their lives as his disciples in which the choices they would be called to make, the actions they would need to take, would be contrary to those expected of them by their families and friends.

In Jesus’ culture and time, one’s only security came from being part of a large extended family. No one could get along without the support and help of the family. Yet the call to follow as a disciple of Jesus was and is something that is individual. Typically, families did not all pack up everything and follow him. Families were not the individual, nuclear family of a married couple and their children that we experience in the Western world. Families included parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews, and the servants of the family. The preferences of the individual did not matter. The well-being of the family was what mattered. If one person wished to follow Jesus, there could be no certainty that all in the family would do so. Much more commonly, those who followed Jesus’ teaching would be acting on their own, against the wishes of the family. In doing this, they would be perceived as “hating” the family members who did not agree with their decision to live differently. They would be rebelling.

Jesus described the reality of social isolation from the family as carrying one’s own cross. It is very difficult to go against one’s family, friends, and community. It is painful to follow a different path and to experience the hard words and rejection that can entail.

He warned those who were traveling with him in the crowd to weigh carefully what they were doing, just as a builder of a tower or a king going out against an enemy with superior forces must do. Everything is on the line. Can you leave behind the security of family, friends, and property to follow? That’s what is demanded of Jesus’ disciple.

Not at all as easy as falling off a log. It’s much harder to stay on the log …

St. Paul gives us an excellent example of the kind of situation a follower of Jesus might encounter that would be totally contrary to normal social expectations. (Phil 9-10, 12-17) An escaped slave named Onesimus has become a friend and convert to Christianity in Rome when Paul is imprisoned there, awaiting trial before Caesar. Slavery is an accepted reality in society at the time. Complicating matters, Onesimus stole from his former master, so not only is he guilty of running away, he’s also guilty of theft. Both carry heavy penalties.

As if that were not enough, the man from whose household Onesimus has escaped is a friend of Paul who lives in Colossae and is one of the leaders of the Christian community there. Philemon is one of Paul’s converts too.

In a very short private letter to Philemon, Paul asks him as a friend to accept Onesimus as a returning brother in Christ, welcoming and treating him as if he were Paul himself coming to visit. Paul notes that he would like to have Onesimus remain with him, but that would not be right, since legally he belongs to Philemon and the latter has not given permission to his slave to serve Paul instead. Paul suggests that perhaps the underlying reason for Onesimus’ having escaped from slavery to Philemon was so that he could learn of the Lord and become a follower and partner in spreading the Good News. He asks Philemon to welcome his slave as a man who is a brother in the Lord.

In our time, with our understanding of the evils of slavery, it’s easy to say that of course, Philemon should receive Onesimus and give him freedom. In fact, we’d say all the slaves should be freed. But that wasn’t the way things were at the time. Paul’s letter is suggesting a very new approach to human relations, in a specific and very limited situation. The community had not yet realized that Jesus’ second coming would not be in their lifetimes. And there weren’t enough of them to have any significant influence on the laws of the Roman Empire! But they could decide to go against the prevailing custom and forgive a thief and runaway slave.

For Philemon, accepting Onesimus would not have been as easy as falling off a log. It would have taken a major decision to grant the request of his friend and mentor, Paul. The fact that this short letter, of only 25 verses, has come down to us today indicates that it was a beginning of something remarkable within the Christian movement. Slaves could be equals of their masters when they were part of this new family, the Body of Christ, the Church.

Two thousand years later, we too sometimes find ourselves having to make tough decisions. We are still called as individuals to make life-changing choices. The people we serve, the occupations we enter, the friends with whom we interact, the communities with whom we pray – all reflect the relationship we have with our Lord. When our beliefs and experiences differ from those of our family and friends, it can be hard to remain on good terms with them. Families can be split apart so easily. It takes a conscious decision and lots of patience to get past differences of opinion and keep the love alive.

We each have our own calling and our own part in the Lord’s mission here on earth. How can we help each other to stay up on the log? It’s so easy to fall off.

Jesus knows that it’s much easier to fall off the log than to follow him. That’s why we have each other as a family larger than our own biological family and even our own community. He has given us himself and all the members of his family of followers. We help each other along the way.

So then, here we go. Off to the park. Who’ll get across the log this time without falling off? I’ll help you and I hope you’ll help me too.

Readings for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

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Posted by on Aug 21, 2022

Workouts in God’s Gym

Workouts in God’s Gym

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

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Posted by on Aug 14, 2022

Setting the Earth on Fire

Setting the Earth on Fire

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

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Posted by on May 22, 2022

A Guide into the Future – The Holy Spirit is With Us

A Guide into the Future – The Holy Spirit is With Us

“It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us …” (Acts 15:28)

Members of the early Christian community did not have everything figured out and standardized from the beginning. It’s important for us who look back from two thousand years later to remember this. These were a bunch of fishermen, farmers, tradesmen and women, and even some educated people like Paul. They had a message of amazing good news to share with the world. They had witnessed the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They had come to believe in him as their Lord, a title reserved for God. But they were not in agreement on many other things that popped up in the years after the resurrection.

The first reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter presents an example of one such disagreement that had to be resolved. The reading does not include the entire story of what happened, so here’s a quick summary.

Paul and Barnabas have just completed their first missionary journey in Asia Minor and returned to Antioch in Syria when this reading begins. Their message was mostly rejected by the Jews to whom they first presented it in these lands, but enthusiastically received by many non-Jews. These Gentiles had been welcomed into the Christian community by Paul and Barnabas, who returned to Antioch in Syria with reports of the wonders God was doing among the Gentiles.

Rather than welcome this news wholeheartedly, some members of the community wanted to put extra conditions on admission to membership – first the Gentiles must become Jews in order to be worthy of admission to the new community. Paul and Barnabas rejected this notion and went south to Jerusalem. (The text says they went up to Jerusalem, because that city was located in a mountainous region in the south.)

In Jerusalem, they consulted with the apostles and other elders of the community. The community was not in agreement on the subject. Some argued that only those who were Jewish could be saved, so converts must become Jews and live by Jewish laws. Others argued that becoming Jews was not necessary. Paul and Barnabas described the signs and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles. Peter spoke to the community about his experience as the one who baptized the first Gentiles, the family of Cornelius, a Roman centurion in Caesarea. When the Spirit of the Lord came upon Cornelius and his family before they were even baptized, Peter realized baptism could not be denied them based on being Gentiles. He reminded the community of this event and asked why anyone would think other Gentiles should be treated differently.

Finally, after much conversation, debate, and prayer, the community reached an agreement. Gentiles did not need to become Jews in order to be Christians. They needed to “abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage.” The community sent two of its members to accompany Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch in Syria with the good news for the new Gentile Christians. (Acts 15:1-2, 22-29)

In this early example, we see the importance of several things in the decision-making of the early Christian community. These include consultation with the leadership, conversation among the members regarding the difference of opinion, reliance on the Holy Spirit to provide insight and guidance in selecting the correct path, and willingness to change accustomed patterns of thinking and acting when situations change and new opportunities open. In presenting their decision, the leaders in Jerusalem made it clear that it was not just their opinion, but that it was the decision of the Holy Spirit that was leading to this major change in an ancient practice.

Jesus, in his final teaching to his apostles the night before he died, made clear that not all would be easy to understand (Jn 14:23-29). He knew that unexpected things would happen in their future. He promised the Father would send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be their guide and remind them of his teachings. They were to follow Jesus’ teaching, his word. In doing this, they would be keeping the word of the Father. Jesus and the Father would come to live within those who keep his word. He promised to give them peace, a deeper peace than any the world can give.

The disciples held on to this promise. Even after Pentecost, as they were fired with faith and courage to go out and share the good news, they counted on the guidance of the Spirit when difficulties arose. During times of persecution and as the years passed and Jesus didn’t return in glory during their lifetimes, this remained a constant.

The reading from the Book of Revelation (21:10-14, 22-23), written long after the events of the other readings, offers a symbolic view of the Church, the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven from God. This city gleams and is radiant with God’s splendor. Its features include twelve gates and twelve foundation stones. The gates, guarded by angels, are named for the twelve tribes of Israel – the chosen people of God who will come from all four directions to this new city. The foundation stones are named after the apostles, upon whose experience and faith the Christian community would stand. But there is no temple building within this new city. The Lord God is the temple himself, lighted by his glory. The Lamb is the lamp through which that light shines.

The presence of God in the Church, the new Jerusalem, the people of God, is the source of all that is to be and the foundation on which the life of the community is built.

We as a Church community have come through a time of great transition in our lifetimes and are seeing new pathways and new understandings of our relationships with each other and with God. It’s been a relatively short time since the Second Vatican Council and the development of the reforms and revised understandings of our relationship with God and the world that it brought. Conflicts among us remain. There is still much to do as we explore the ramifications of the insights of the Council, insights that surprised even those who participated. The Holy Spirit was at work, bringing/calling the Church once again into a newer and deeper presence in our world.

Will we be as brave as those first Christians were in hearing and accepting the guidance of the Spirit? Our world has seen major changes since the early days of the Church and the days of the Council. How have we changed. What have we learned? What areas need our attention and healing now?

We are currently in the process of the first Synod that has ever asked the opinions of lay people about the future of the Church – who we are, what we are called to be, how we are to live in our world. How will we respond as the Spirit speaks through ordinary women and men? Will we trust the Spirit? Are we open to change? Will we follow where the Spirit leads, believing the One who has loved and led us for so long will continue to be there for us too? Will we recognize and accept the peace of the Lord in our lives? The early Church community met, prayed, and discussed changes needed. The Church today continues the same tradition of Synodality. Where will the Spirit next lead us?

“It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us …”

Come Holy Spirit!

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Posted by on Apr 3, 2022

Doing Something New

Doing Something New

The readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent in both Cycles C and A all speak of the ways in which God is doing something new. Once again, we have two possible sets of readings. Readings from Cycle A are used for celebrations of Eucharist in which those preparing for the Easter sacraments are present. Those from Cycle C are used for the others.

In the first reading for each cycle, we hear of God stepping in to do something new. In Cycle C,  Isaiah (43:16-21) speaks for the Lord, telling the people that although in the past the waters of the sea were parted so the people could pass through, now something new was going to happen. Forget what happened in the past, pay attention to what I’m doing now, is the essence of the prophecy. “I am doing something new!” There will be a way through the wastelands, rivers will flow in the desert, wild beasts will honor the Lord, and a new people will be formed to announce the praise of the Lord. All will be new again. A fresh start, so to speak.

The Cycle A reading is from the book of Ezekiel (37:12-14). The Lord promises: “I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel.” He promises his spirit will settle upon them, so they will recognize their God. They will return and settle on their land once again. Something new is going to happen.

“The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy,” sing the people of God in Psalm 126. We have gone forth from our homes in tears, but we return rejoicing. In Cycle A, the Lord’s mercy is celebrated in Psalm 130. “With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.” All can and will be forgiven. Call out to the Lord, trust in the Lord, and the Lord in his kindness will redeem Israel.

St. Paul assures both the people of Philippi (3:8-14) (Cycle C) and the people of Rome (8:8-11) (Cycle A) of the love of God and promise of new life for those who have faith in Christ. Sharing in the suffering of Christ, turning away from worldly pleasures and ambitions, the faithful believer will be raised from the dead because the Spirit of the Lord lives within them.

In the Gospels we see different stories, but in each God is doing something new. In Cycle C, we hear from St. John about the time the scribes and Pharisees tried to trap Jesus into breaking either Jewish law or Roman law. They brought a woman accused of adultery to him for judgement (Jn 8:1-11). They told him she had been caught in the act, so was clearly guilty as charged. The Mosaic law imposed the penalty of stoning for this offense. What should be done? The trap was subtle. The Romans did not allow the death penalty to be imposed by local authorities. Only Roman authorities could impose that penalty. If Jesus opted for stoning (in accordance with Mosaic law), he would be breaking Roman law. But would he advocate turning her over to the Romans for punishment? That would be unthinkable. What would he do?

Jesus did something unexpected. He simply bent down and began to write on the ground. The accusers kept insisting on an answer, so finally he spoke. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the accusers all left. No one condemned her. Jesus then spoke directly to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

Something new. The possibility of forgiveness for what was seen as a terrible sin. There are several “I wonder” moments in the story. Where was the man who would logically have been present when the woman was seized by the authorities? Was her sin really what we would call adultery, or might she have been the victim of a different crime? If she had been outside her home without a male chaperone, would that culturally have justified an assault on her that could be called or perceived as adultery?

Many possible angles and unknowns in this story. The critical point, however, is that Jesus does not judge as others in his community would have judged the woman. He did not fall into the either/or trap. He did something new and different, something bringing joy to the woman in question and showing the kindness and mercy of God. “Neither do I condemn you.”

We see Jesus doing something new in St. John’s Gospel from Cycle A as well (Jn 11:1-45). Jesus and his friends have gone away from Jerusalem for a while after things got too hot politically. He was in danger of being killed, so he had gotten out of town for a while. Then word came that his good friend Lazarus was dying. The sisters of Lazarus sent word to him, certainly hoping he would come and heal their brother. But Jesus stayed where he was for two more days before traveling to the community near Jerusalem where Lazarus and his sisters lived.

His friends cautioned him that it was dangerous to return to Jerusalem and the nearby towns. But Jesus insisted on returning. Lazarus had died, but Jesus would still heal him. In fact, it would be an even more amazing healing than those performed earlier, so more likely to lead them to belief.

When Jesus meets Martha, Lazarus’ sister, she expresses her belief that Jesus could have saved her brother’s life. She also believes in the resurrection “on the last day.” It is then that Jesus makes an amazing statement. “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live…” Martha expresses her faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God come into the world.

This was truly a case in which God did something new. The name Lazarus speaks of God coming to the rescue at the last moment. Jesus called Lazarus forth from the tomb four days after Lazarus had died. There was no question about whether or not the man had died. It had been four days. Four days was a legal landmark. The person was not coming back. Possessions could be distributed. All was done and over. But God came to the rescue. Jesus called Lazarus forth from the tomb, ordering, “Untie him and let him go.” And Lazarus lived again.

The Lord has done great things for us too. What is the Lord doing that is new in our lives? What specifically needs healing in my life, in your life? Where will the Lord call us out of a desert into a rich land? Where will we rise from our tombs of anger, frustration, or apathy? When will we receive forgiveness for the wrongs we have done? Will we recognize and accept the kindness of the Lord come to redeem us too?

Lent is nearing its end. New things are coming. Let’s continue in hope and open our eyes to see the beauty of the new life coming.

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Posted by on Mar 22, 2022

Living Water – Drawing from Deep Wells

Living Water – Drawing from Deep Wells

Water – fresh, running water, drinkable water, water in the desert, water from a well, living water. Water and hearing the voice of the Lord are linked in today’s readings. 

On the Third Sunday of Lent, two different sets of readings may be used. For communities in which people are preparing for the Easter sacraments – Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist – the readings are those from Cycle A. There are three different Cycles of readings used in our liturgies. This allows us to hear more of scripture that is possible if only one set is ever used.

A ritual known as the Scrutinies is celebrated on the Third, Forth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent. We join with those preparing to enter the Church in looking at our lives and examining areas in which we need a bit more help from the Lord to live our lives as witnesses to the love of God. The readings from Cycle A support the theme for the prayers and reflections that form these rituals.

This year, for celebrations of Mass that do not have the Scrutinies, the readings from Cycle C will be used. At Resurrection, for Sunday’s Zoom Mass, it will be the readings from Cycle A.

Moses and the Israelites in our first reading (Ex 17:3-7) are wandering in a desert – hungry and thirsty, remembering the days back in Egypt when they at least had something to eat and drink, even if they had to be slaves. Moses fears they will turn against him and possibly even kill him in their anger at being in a desert with nothing to drink. He turns to God in frustration – “What am I to do with this people!” And he hears the voice of the Lord (God) telling him to strike a rock with his staff – the same staff he used to part the waters of the sea and bring them back flowing over the pursuing Egyptians. When Moses strikes the rock, water pours forth. 

In our experience, this sounds totally improbable, outlandish even. But in that land, water hides within and behind rock formations. It is possible to break through the rock and find flowing water. That water sustained the Israelites and they were able to continue on their 40-year journey, wandering through the desert on the Sinai Peninsula before arriving at the Promised Land. 

St. John tells us of the time when Jesus stopped in a Samaritan town and met a woman at a well that had once been owned by the great patriarch, Jacob. (Jn 4:5-42) Jesus and his friends were hungry and thirsty. His friends went into town to buy some food. He stayed at the well. A woman approached the well. Based on the time of the day, he knew she was not a woman of good reputation. Most women came to the well early in the morning. They were busy with household activities around noon when this encounter took place. Possibly, this woman “worked” at night. She had been married many times. She was living with a man to whom she was not married. She was not a person respected by her community. She came to the well at a time when she did not expect to meet anyone there.

Jesus spoke with her, despite the fact he would have known she was not a respectable woman based on the time of day she had come to the well. He asked her for a drink of water. She was shocked and questioned his motives. Why would a good Jew speak to her, let alone ask her to get him some water from the well? Men didn’t speak to women whom they did not know in public places like a well. Jews didn’t speak to Samaritans.

As the woman and Jesus speak, she realizes that he is more than he appears. He speaks of giving her living water (another name for running water rather than water from a well). That seems totally off-the-wall to her. It doesn’t occur to her that he might be speaking of what we call the water of life, the life of and with God. Yet eventually, as they speak, she comes to recognize that he is sent by God and is a prophet. Water comes in many forms, it seems. Sometimes it’s a gift of new life possibilities. 

John tells us that Jesus and his disciples stayed in that town for two days. Jesus spent the time teaching the people of the kingdom of God. Many people came to believe in him when they heard his teaching. The waters of life flowed in their community, after first being offered to a woman whom no one respected, a woman who shared what she had discovered with the rest of her community.

St. Paul speaks to the Christians in Rome about the gift of peace with God to which we have access by our faith in Jesus (Rm 5:1-2, 5-8). We can hope in the glory of God, the love of God poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, we don’t have to be perfect or even respectable for God to love us. God reached out to the people of that village in Samaria. God reached out to the people of Rome. God reached out to the Hebrew people in the desert. And God reaches out to us each day. Jesus came to us when we were imperfect. He lived and died as a truly human man. And in his life and death, the witness and integrity of his life became our model. Through his resurrection, we all have life and the possibility of reunion with our God.

In California this year, we continue to be very aware of water, including the lack of water. We are very short of rain. Water conservation and even rationing loom on the horizon. But the water of life, given by God, does not run short. There is plenty of that for all. It’s an abundant resource, just waiting for us to reach out in faith and tap into it.

As the Psalmist says, “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” (Ps 95) Where do we hear God’s voice today? What is the living water we need? 

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Posted by on Mar 6, 2022

Don’t Go Looking for Trouble

Don’t Go Looking for Trouble

One of my favorite hymns is “On Eagle’s Wings,” by Michael Joncas. This hymn is based on Psalm 91, which we sing as part of the liturgy on the First Sunday of Lent. The psalmist speaks of all the benefits of trusting in God. A key promise is, “No evil shall befall you … for to his angels he has given a command … that they guard you in all your ways.” The Lord promises to support those who cling to him in trust when in the midst of distress. The Lord will deliver and glorify the one who trusts.

This theme of trust in the word of the Lord in times of trouble is present in the first reading as well. This is from the book of Deuteronomy (26:4-10). This book begins with a short history of God’s dealings with the Israelites and care for them from the time they left Egypt up to about a month before they entered the Promised land. A series of teachings about the Covenant with God follows. Then comes a section about the Law and how the people are to live. This is the section from which we hear today. The book ends with the final words of Moses before his death just outside the new land to which they had at last arrived.

Moses reminds the people of God’s care and their responsibilities in obeying the Law. Today he speaks of their responsibility to give thanks with a sacrifice of the first fruits of the harvest each year. They are to speak of their history, beginning before their time in Egypt, through the Exodus, and the blessings of this new land in which they now live – “flowing with milk and honey.” Their gifts are to be presented to the Lord and they are to “bow down in his presence.” They have arrived and at last enjoy the blessings of the Lord’s care for them in this land.

Many years later, St. Paul wrote a letter to Christians in Rome. He spoke to the Roman Christians of the role of the Jewish people in salvation history. At one point he reflects on the fact that even though Gentiles have never known and obeyed the Law, they can be saved by believing that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. He quotes the book of Deuteronomy in which it is written that the commands of the Lord are not far away or impossible to reach. They are “very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.” (Dt 30:14) In this same way, those not bound by the Law are saved by the word that is very near. Believing in the heart and confessing that belief verbally leads to salvation. Everyone who calls on the Lord will be saved.

Given the history of God’s intervention in human history to care for his people and rescue them in times of trial, the experience of Jesus in the desert is not too surprising. St. Luke tells us that Jesus went into the desert when he left the Jordan after his baptismal experience of the presence and love of the Father. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and so went to pray. (When the Spirit comes upon a person, it’s an amazing experience, but it takes time to process what has happened.) For forty days, Jesus prayed and fasted.

Forty days is a period long enough for new habits and skills to be learned. In Judeo-Christian history, it’s a reminder of the 40 years spent by the Israelites in the desert between the Exodus from Egypt and their entrance into the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. It’s also a very long time for humans to go without food, or with very little food. At the end of his forty days fast, Jesus was probably tired and was definitely hungry.

In this weakened state, he had a visitor. The Greek term that we translate as devil means a false accuser or slanderer. This visitor tried to convince Jesus to do something out of the ordinary to appease his hunger – to use his new-found relationship with the Father for his own benefit. Prove that you’re the Son of God. Just turn a few stones into loaves of bread and you won’t have to be hungry anymore. You’re special. God’s own son. Take advantage of it! But Jesus would have none of that. He quoted Scripture to remind the visitor that “One does not live by bread alone.”

Well then. That didn’t work. Time to try something else.  Up to a mountain top. See all the kingdoms of the world. “I shall give to you all this power and glory.” It’s mine. I can give it away. Just worship me and you can have it – power and glory. But Jesus turns that down too. He quotes the Law: “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”

OK, so this guy wants to quote Scripture all the time. One more thing to try, thinks the visitor. Here’s the great temple of Jerusalem. Way up on the very topmost peak. Now throw yourself down from here. After all, Scripture says, “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you … With their hands they will support you…” The visitor quotes Psalm 91.

Jesus rejects all these temptations – to use his power and position to meet his own needs, to gain earthly power, or to force God’s hand and provoke a miraculous intervention to save his life. Talk about fame if that happened! But Jesus rejects them all. “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” (Dt 6:16) Once again we return to the Law as presented in the book of Deuteronomy.

What is the lesson for us? I think it could be summed up with the simple admonition, “Don’t go looking for trouble.” It’s easy to think we have all the answers or that we are special because of our education, our social status, our job, our family, our good looks, or whatever. Sometimes we are also tempted to take advantage of these characteristics with which we may have been gifted. Or we are tempted to think that a spiritual experience makes us better judges of what another person should do. We might also think that God will get us out of any trouble we get into, so what’s to lose?

There are many ways the visitor who tempted Jesus can whisper lies to us as well. Even Jesus had to deal with this visitor. Jesus saw through the visitor’s offers and lies. He relied on his faith and its traditions to guide his thinking about how he was to proceed and what his ministry would be.

As we journey through the season of Lent, we too are called to trust in the Lord. This is a good time to turn to scripture – read a Gospel or the Acts of the Apostles. Study the documents of the Council. Read one of Pope Francis’ books. He’s written some fantastic ones. They’re short and filled with wisdom.

And then, take time for prayer. It doesn’t need to be filled with a lot of words. Take a walk with Jesus. Open your eyes to the beauty of the place in which you live. See the flowers. Listen to the birds. Smell the earth or the water. Notice the gifts of God in your life. See the beauty of the people you meet along the way. Smile.

Troubles will come soon enough. They come to everyone. When they come, God will be there with us. Angels will be there to support us, sent by God. We may not see them, but they will be present, offering strength on which we can draw if we remember to seek and hope for it. Sometimes, we even meet their helpers along the way – our sisters and brothers in faith who reach out to accompany us on our journey.

Don’t go looking for trouble! Just keep your eyes open for God’s presence supporting you when trouble comes around.

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Posted by on Mar 2, 2022

A Clean Heart Create for Me

A Clean Heart Create for Me

The holy season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. This is a time of preparation and growth. In just six and a half weeks, we’ll arrive at Easter. In the northern hemisphere, Spring is fast upon us. Here on California’s Central Coast, it is in full swing. Trees and flowers are blooming. Birds are getting ready to fly north. Butterflies bring flashes of color to the landscape. Citrus trees are heavy with ripening fruit. And while we don’t have the cold, cold weather seen in so much of the world during Winter, the longer and somewhat warmer days are awakening itchy fingers, ready to plant the warmer season flowers and vegetables. It is a time for growth and renewal.

The readings for this day speak of renewal, of God’s mercy, of recognition of our failings, and of ways to till the gardens of our hearts, making them fertile soil for receiving the gifts our Father has for each of us.

The prophet Joel (2:12-18) spoke at a time of swarms of locusts and a great drought that caused crop failure and famine in the land. This was seen as a time of loss of divine favor due to the sin of the people of Israel. But through Joel’s words, God calls the people back – to conversion through prayer and fasting. The reading concludes with the observation that the Lord took pity of his people, stirred to concern for his land.

Psalm 51 calls on God to be merciful, to wash away our offenses, cleanse us of our guilt, and put a new spirit within us. “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.” The joy of salvation and a willing spirit come as gifts from God. And we pray, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” Praise and thanksgiving grow in the soil of a newly renewed heart.

St. Paul, in a second letter to the people of Corinth (2 Cor 5:20-6:2), begs them to be reconciled with God, for the sake of Christ. Christ gave himself so that humans could become the “righteousness of God.” But what is God’s righteousness? God is merciful and gracious. God is slow to anger, rich in kindness, relenting in punishment. These are characteristics of God, revealed by Joel in our first reading. This is the call of the followers, the sisters and brothers of Jesus. To be images of the God who loves and forgives. Again, something that can only grow from within the heart of each person. It doesn’t really come naturally to us.

Finally, Jesus gives us very specific instructions (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18). Summed up briefly: Don’t perform righteous deeds where people can see them! Be discreet in your life of faith. Give of what you have, but do it quietly, secretly. Pray quietly, by yourself. Wash your face, wear your regular clothes. Don’t do anything to draw attention and praise to yourself for your good deeds.

Why not be open and even brazen about doing these good deeds? Shouldn’t we be good examples to others? Because God is hidden and can only really be approached through the heart. God is love. God reaches quietly out to the heart of each and every person. It is only in the garden of the heart, just as it was in the Garden of Eden, that we meet and walk freely with our God. And when we are consistently meeting and walking with our God, there will be a certain something that is attractive about us, something that draws others to walk with God themselves.

“A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”

Pope Francis has some suggestions for us this year. More challenging than giving up chocolate or TV or desserts, perhaps. Perhaps not. Certainly worth considering. What fertilizer does my inner garden need? What weeds need to be removed? What flowers and fruits will grow from my heart this year.

Welcome to Lent – the season of growth and renewal as we prepare for the great mystery of redemption.

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Posted by on Dec 12, 2021

Our God Rejoices and Renews Us in His Love

Our God Rejoices and Renews Us in His Love

Gaudete Sunday is another name for the Third Sunday of Advent. The name comes from the first words in Latin of the Introit, the psalm or hymn at the beginning of the Mass. Today’s Introit begins with words from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (4:4-7), “Rejoice in the Lord always.” The passage in this letter is filled with hope and joy. Rejoice! The Lord is near. The Lord cares about us. So don’t be afraid of anything. Ask God with confident thanksgiving for what is needed. And our hearts and minds will be filled with God’s peace. This is truly wonderful news.

We can see a similar theme in the reading from the prophecy of Zephaniah (3:14-18a). Zephaniah was another of the prophets who lived during the time of King Josiah (640 – 609 BC). This was a time when the kingdom of Judah was allied with the Assyrians and had adopted many of the gods and practices of their allies. Zephaniah’s prophecy came during the first 10 years of Josiah’s reign. It’s a short piece, just three chapters. The unfaithfulness of the people of Judah and some of their leaders is set forth. The statement that the unfaithfulness would be punished follows. Yet there is hope after all, because a small remnant of those faithful to the Lord remain. In the end, those faithful ones will survive. Zephaniah cries out, “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel!” Why? Because the King of Israel (who is the Lord) is present among them. This Lord “will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in his love.”

What a wonderful image! How hopeful for us all – Our Lord God rejoices over us and sings joyfully because of us.

This theme is repeated in the Responsorial Psalm, which today is actually a passage from the prophet Isaiah. “Cry out with joy and gladness: for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel.”

With such a long history of faithfulness on God’s part and varying periods of being faithful and falling away among the people, the appearance of a new prophet in Israel was always of interest. This is especially true when the nation has been conquered and the people are ruled by foreign powers. Who will come to lead the nation to freedom this time? Will this be the time that a new kingdom begins and Israel again becomes a powerful nation? Who is the chosen of the Lord this time?

When John the Baptist arrived on the scene, people were ready for a change. They hated paying taxes to Rome. The riches of their nation were being taken for the use of others in the empire. Foreign rulers were making sure no dissent could safely be voiced. Those who opposed their rule were executed. Who would come to save the people?

John came speaking of repentance and paving the way of the Lord who is coming. He quoted the ancient prophets who spoke of the Chosen One coming to restore the glory of Israel. “What should we do?” the people ask. How do we prepare for the coming of the Chosen One? How do we make straight the path?

John gives very practical answers. If you have two cloaks, give one to a person who has none. If you have extra food, share it. If your job is to collect taxes, only collect the amount owed. Don’t take extra for yourself (a legal and common practice that made tax collectors particularly unpopular). If you are a soldier, don’t use threats to make people pay you. Don’t accuse anyone falsely. Be content with what you are paid, don’t go around making people pay extra to be left in peace.

These are all things that most of us would say make perfect sense. In fact, much of our social contract is based on these types of behaviors as the rule for all. However, then as now, there are always those whose approach is different – those who want to see how much they can get for themselves. John’s words gave great hope to his listeners. Could this be the promised one? Could he be the Christ?

Again, we might not phrase this question in terms of promised ones or messiahs. We live in different times. Our challenge is to evaluate the latest fads, the celebrity of the day, the newest consumer goods or leisure activities. Is any of these going to prepare us for the coming of the Lord in our midst? Is any of these what will make clear that the Lord is already in our midst?

John told the people that one mightier than he was coming. This one would fill them with the Holy Spirit of God and gather them safely like a farmer bringing the harvest into a barn at harvest time. St. Luke tells us, “Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people.” (Lk 3:10-18)

Words of encouragement. The Lord is coming. The Lord rejoices with us. The Lord takes delight in us. Truly good news for all.

Today let us rejoice. The Lord has come and is joyfully among us. Let’s open our eyes and our hearts to see and share this joy.

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Posted by on Dec 5, 2021

The Lord Comes in Historical Times

The Lord Comes in Historical Times

Once upon a time …  Many stories we tell begin with a reference to a time long ago and far away. These stories relate important truths, but the actual facts of what happened may or may not be true. As storyteller and theologian Megan McKenna likes to say, “All stories are true and some of them actually happened.”

The readings for the Second Sunday of Advent differ from many of the stories we encounter in the first books of the Bible. The first books were written hundreds if not thousands of years after the events they describe. Some of them are clearly not historical – “In the beginning …” Others present a picture of how things came to be, somewhat like fables we learn as children. Some tell stories of the first families from whom all are descended. Details of these stories are hard to document in terms of our modern understanding of history. But in the readings today we have historical details that support the narrative, the story being told.

The first reading comes from Baruch (5:1-9). Baruch was an aristocrat, a member of the court of King Zedekiah just before the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. He was also a scribe for Jeremiah the prophet. We know this from a history written by Josephus, a Jewish historian in the first century. In the book of Baruch, Jerusalem is described as a woman mourning the death of a loved one – sitting in clothes that indicate she is mourning during the first seven days after the death. A woman “sitting shiva.” Baruch speaks words of hope. “Take off your robe of mourning and misery, put on the splendor of glory from God forever.” She is to put on a cloak of justice and wear a mitre (a special turban or hat) proclaiming the glory of God’s name, like that worn by Aaron when the Israelites traveled with Moses through the desert.

Jerusalem will see her children returning from exile, being led back by God. As they come, the mountains will be leveled and the gorges will be filled ahead of them, so the road back will be smooth and secure. Fragrant trees will protect the way and welcome the travelers, as Israel is led by God in glory, with mercy and justice personified as their companion.

What a glorious hope for a people suffering exile in the land of their enemies! This book was probably written long after that time described, but the person whose name it bears is known to have lived during the time just before and during the exile. It is a book of prayers, poems, and prophecies filled with hope.

Psalm 126 repeats the refrain of the joy of exiles returning from foreign lands. Those who watch them return marvel, “The Lord has done great things for them.” They return carrying the fruits of the harvest that has grown during their time of exile. They have not remained helplessly suffering and stagnating. During their time of exile, they have grown.

The Gospel of Luke begins before the birth of either Jesus or his cousin John, but today we hear some of the story of the prophetic travels and activities of John (Lk 3:1-6). This section begins with a long list of political rulers, the timeframe in which it occurs, the regions they governed, and their leadership positions. We get a very real sense of what was going on in the Roman empire, Palestine, and Jerusalem as John and Jesus come onto the scene – two cousins who will unexpectedly become influential in their world. Both men are from families that would not ordinarily have attracted any attention at all. John’s father was a priest at the temple. Jesus’ father was a tradesman in the town of Nazareth in the north of the country near the sea of Galilee. Yet both men played critical roles in the drama of reconciliation between God and humans – salvation history.

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea … the word of the Lord came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.” John had been living as a hermit in the desert for many years, but the Lord called him to action. He began to call people to repentance, to change their way of behaving towards each other and move towards the freedom of living in God’s forgiveness and justice. As a symbol of this transition, he used baptism, a ritual of purification with water that was deeply rooted in his Jewish tradition. He spoke of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Valleys are to be filled and mountains leveled. Everything that can get in the way of those who seek the Lord is to be leveled. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Many years after John the Baptist announced the coming of the Lord, St. Paul sends a letter to the community of believers in Philippi (Phil 1:4-6, 8-11). This is a community to which Paul has brought the message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. They are people he knows and loves. They are also people whom he is not likely ever to see again. He writes while he is a prisoner in Rome, awaiting the judgement that will result in his release or his execution. He shares the joy he feels in their faith and commitment to the life of the gospel. He expresses his deep-seated love for them and prays that their love will grow and deepen each day, so they will be pure and blameless at Christ’s return. Love in the sense of the word he uses is love with no limits and no strings attached. Love in the best and deepest sense of the word, a love that leads to purity of heart.

Paul’s words speak to us too. We too are called to this deep love and to growth in love throughout our lives. Hearing the word of the Lord is only the first step on the road to salvation, the road to the fullness of life in God’s kingdom. We grow each day as we practice loving and caring for each other and those whom the Lord sends our way. The child who bumps into us in the grocery store. The stranger who doesn’t know the roads in our town and makes sudden moves to get into the lane just ahead of us to make a turn. The family member who will never (insert your pet peeve here). The man on the street who cries out in madness, unable to find release from the illness that torments his mind. The uneducated woman who travels from another country with her young daughter, seeking a safe place to live and protection from those who would kill them both because her husband is a police officer.

Many opportunities open up each day, calling for us to reach out in love. God is coming. God has come. God lives among us. How do I make the ways straight for others to experience his presence? Do I notice the valleys that have been filled and the mountains leveled to help us to pass? Will I continue to grow in love? How will you and I spend our Advent time? Will we be bearers of peace and hope in our world?

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Posted by on Sep 26, 2021

What If the Lord Bestows His Spirit on All?

What If the Lord Bestows His Spirit on All?

On this Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we hear of prophecy, healing, and inclusion. We also hear words of warning, some quite harsh.

Moses, in the Book of Numbers, has his hands full trying to lead the people and deal with their complaints and concerns (Nm 11:25-29). The burden of leadership has rested heavily on his shoulders, and he is tired of carrying it by himself. He complains to the Lord, who promises to spread the burden around a bit, and to provide more meat for the people (addressing their chief complaint). Moses is to select a group of elders who will help him govern the people. They are to gather at the meeting tent. All but two of those chosen are present at the tent when the Lord takes some of the spirit shared with Moses and bestows it on the chosen elders. These men begin to speak the Lord’s word when the spirit comes upon them – to prophesy. It is a strong confirmation of their new role in the community.

While this is happening at the meeting tent, the two men who were late getting there also experience the coming of the spirit upon them. They also begin to prophesy, right there in the camp. A young man runs to Moses with the news. Joshua urges Moses to stop the men from prophesying, since they have not received this gift at the tent with the others. Moses declines to do so, asking Joshua if he is jealous for the sake of himself (Moses).

Moses declares a different vision than that of limitation of access to divine inspiration and exclusion of those not present when the Lord acts in a religious or other formal setting. He declares, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”

In the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, the spirit of the Lord is the Lord’s very life breath! When the Lord shares his spirit with people, he is sharing of his own life. Moses wishes this sharing in the divine life and gifts could be experienced by all the people. Those who receive it speak out in praise the words of the Lord.

Jesus also dealt with misunderstanding of the breadth of God’s distribution of gifts (Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48). Someone else was successfully driving out demons in Jesus’ name. Perhaps wishing to protect Jesus’ reputation as a healer in the face of competition, John tried to stop the other from acting and then informed Jesus of the competition. Jesus surprised John by telling him not to try to stop the other person’s actions. He noted that it is impossible to perform mighty deeds in Jesus’ name and in the next breath speak ill of him. “For whoever is not against us is for us.”  And any who help those belonging to Christ, even with a small drink of water, will be rewarded.

So much for jealously restricting the gifts of healing and prophesy…

Now for the other side of the picture. A series of dire warnings concludes this section of the Gospel. The warnings are phrased dramatically and speak of drastic efforts to keep from causing others who believe in Jesus to sin. They were not meant to be taken literally, though in the course of history, some people have done just that. Jesus is not advocating physically injuring or maiming oneself or others, but rather emphasizing how important it is to be aware of what leads us to sin – what leads us to miss the target of loving behavior towards others and ourselves. He warns that it’s better to do without something deemed very important than to go to Gehenna, where the fire is unquenchable.

This reference to Gehenna is one that today is not at all understood in the context known by Jesus’ audience. We tend to think of Hell as the destination in the reference, but that’s not what Jesus was saying. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, there was a garbage dump. This dump was not like a modern landfill. It was a place where garbage was burned in open fires. The fires were kept burning day and night. The final line is a reference to the last few verses of the Book of Isaiah. Those verses too spoke of the garbage-burning fires outside the gates of the city. The prophet has just spoken of the coming victory of the Lord and the bringing together of good people from all over the earth to live in the city of the Lord. The bodies of the enemies, slain in a great battle, would be burned in the fires of the garbage dump.

These readings, and the reading from the letter of James (Jas 5:1-6), almost follow a parallel pattern. First Moses chides Joshua for trying to limit the Lord’s sharing of the spirit. Moses speaks of a broader sharing of the spirit among all the people. Then James cautions against making assumptions about the future or storing up riches for old age by taking advantage of the poor or treating workers unfairly. He reminds his listeners that the Lord hears the cries of those who are being harmed and will ultimately rule in their favor.  Finally, Jesus refuses to limit the power of healing to the small group of disciples who travel with him. He warns of the serious nature of sin and the importance of guarding against falling into temptation.

These readings are not just samples of the thinking of historical figures. They are intended to speak to us today. What do they say to us?

The first thing that comes to mind is the insight of the Council Fathers at the Second Vatican Council, when they declared that the Spirit has been at work in all cultures and times throughout the history of humankind. This was a major breakthrough. No longer do we say that only through faith in Jesus is salvation and everlasting life with God possible. We know that people of good will who have never received the gift of faith also share in life with God, both now and when they enter into eternity. The document, Nostra Aetate, (Declaration on The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), was promulgated on October 28, 1965. It is a short document, but its implications are profound for our world today and the religious strife which still plagues humanity.

The second point is perhaps more challenging. We absolutely must take seriously our own responsibility for our failures to live in self-giving love. And then we must do something about them.

What keeps me from a loving response? Is it the television show over which I get angry if I have to miss the final five minutes of the program? Is it the cell phone that keeps me distracted from family dinner conversation? Is it the sports event on television whose result upsets me so that I lash out angrily against my family? Is it taking on too many activities so that I can live up to an unrealistic picture of what a good parent does but then find I don’t have patience with a spouse or child who just needs a bit of attention and time from me? Is it social media? Do I really need to spend an hour or more each day catching up with my followers? What should I really be quietly doing for a friend today?

So many things can come between me and God. (The grammarian in me says it should be “God and me,” but the issue really is that God isn’t the one responsible here, so I will leave it with myself first here.) My challenge, and I think the challenge we all face, is to see what obstacles trip me up. Those are the ones I must address. They are the ones that need to be limited or dumped. Better they be dumped than that I end up in the dump – living apart from joyous presence of God.

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Posted by on Jul 10, 2021

Kindness and Truth, Justice and Peace – Signs of the Kingdom

Kindness and Truth, Justice and Peace – Signs of the Kingdom

The readings for the Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle B this year) begin with an event in the life of Amos the prophet (Am 7:12-15). A priest from the temple in Bethel named Amaziah essentially tells him, “Get lost!”

This might at first glance seem like a clash between the roles of priest and prophet. Anthropologists have noted these clashes in many societies. The priest’s role is to uphold the religious system and offer the necessary sacrifices to the local deity. The prophet’s role is to stand outside the gates and call for changes in the status quo when things get too unbearable for the poor and others outside the favored classes. Once the changes have been made in a society, the priestly class re-establishes a new status quo and all moves forward peacefully again.

To a certain extent this is what we see happening here. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. The Promised Land has divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom is known as Israel. The southern is Judah. Bethel is in the northern kingdom which has been quite successful in expanding into lands we now know as Syria and Iraq. The nobles are doing very well personally. The religious leaders are also profiting from the elaborate religious ceremonies, including sacrifices to local gods of the conquered areas. The religious establishment is favoring the ruling class rather than reminding them to care for the poor as well, and that favor is being returned.

Roving bands of prophets move throughout the land, speaking in the style of oracles – using puzzling language and leaving people to figure out what the oracle means. These prophets earn their living as they move from place to place from people who want to know what the future will bring – much like “fortune tellers” today.

Amos is from Judah. He is a shepherd and “dresser of sycamores.” He is not a member of any band of prophets. He is a respectable man who earns a good living from his work. But God called him, instructing him to go to Israel (the northern kingdom) and call the rulers and people there back to the covenant. When Amos obeys, his message is not welcomed and Amaziah tells him to go home!

This might have been the end of the story, but Amos does not back down. He explains his professional background as nothing remotely resembling a prophet and makes it abundantly clear that he has been called by God to deliver the message. The very next sentence he speaks is: “Now hear the word of the Lord.”

The Book of Amos was the first prophetic book in the Hebrew Scriptures. It became something of a template for the prophets and prophetic books that followed, including Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The primary offense of the Kingdom of Israel? Failure to care for the poor, the widows and orphans, the conquered, and foreigners.

Psalm 85 puts it very clearly: kindness and truth meet, justice and peace kiss. Truth springs from the earth, while justice looks down from heaven. Justice, the right order of things, is based on kindness to each other. Only when the conditions of justice are met can there be peace and salvation.

The letter to the Ephesians (Eph 1:3-14) begins with a reminder of God’s blessings for those called to the community of believers. All things are summed up in Christ, according to God’s plan from before the world was created. We are chosen to be the adopted children of God, through his son, Jesus.

Finally, we see Jesus (Mk 6:7-13) sending out his twelve closest followers two by two to heal the sick and drive out “unclean spirits.” They are not to take anything but a pair of sandals with them on the journey. Their mission is not to the rich. Those who judge the importance of the messenger by appearances only would never give these messengers the time of day! But to those who welcome them and their message of repentance (turning back to God), healing of the sick and deliverance from demons is possible.

Remember, in those days what we know as mental illness was attributed to possession by evil spirits. This is not to say that such spirits don’t exist. They can cause a lot of trouble for any who listen to them. However, healing of the hurts, anger, frustration, and divisions that plague human relationships and can make mental illnesses worse is truly a form of driving out unclean spirits/demons too. When minds and hearts are healed, it can lead to obviously changed lives.

Kindness and truth, justice and peace – all are signs of the kingdom. May they characterize our lives in this coming week and into the years to come.

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Posted by on Aug 4, 2020

What is God up to that is New?

What is God up to that is New?

By Dcn Ed Callahan

From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”(Matt 4:17)

As we, the people of God, attempt to navigate these strange times, we may be left with a feeling that nothing is or will be the same again. This Covid-19 event is having such far-reaching effects in our daily lives. We are wearing masks and keeping social distancing. People are suffering because their businesses are changed or closed altogether. We can’t go to the cinema or the theater; sporting events are altered or canceled. Gatherings are discouraged. Even our worship services are altered or even closed! It leaves us wondering how we are to be Church!

Metanoia

The verse in the header was mentioned in a book I’m reading by Richard Rohr. He reminds us that the word frequently translated as repent, convert, or reform is the Greek word metanoia, which quite literally means “to change your mind.” Rohr notes, “It is not a moralistic or even churchy word at all; it is a clear strategy for enlightenment for the world. Once you accept change as a central program for yourself you tend to continue growing throughout all of your life.”

Rohr teaches us that our egos make us resistant to change and self-examination – we are comfortable with our institutions and conscious assent to the ‘right beliefs’ about God and about ourselves and our ‘rightness.’ We are content with our religious group and how we worship. This is our unchanging touchstone in our life. But now we must remember that Jesus himself was all about change.

Sometimes we are loath to change our outlook. We are not open to change in ourselves or our church life. But Jesus, speaking to Nicodemus, says, “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

How is the wind blowing in our lives today?

Right now we should be discerning the workings of God in the world. Our question may be, What is God doing now that is new? How do I participate in God’s work? This would be more mature spiritually than stomping our foot that things are just not the same.

Each Christian has the opportunity and the duty to work with the Spirit as it seeks to transform the face of the earth. How are we living our faith? Are we doing any of the Corporal Works of Mercy? Just one person will do for each of us. Are we doing the Spiritual Works of Mercy for another person? Reaching out to one person will do.

We will get back to our worship, but when we return to our spot in the pews are we changed? Have we allowed the Spirit to change us? Have we participated, accomplishing our little part of transforming the whole world? Have we died to ourselves and set our ego aside?

God will never be diverted from his mission to Humankind. He is Love, Mercy, and Justice and against Him and his people nothing will triumph.

So, What is God up to that is new?

Image: Detail from Giovanni Guida’s 2020 painting, “God Fights the Corona Virus”

 

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Posted by on Jul 23, 2020

The Wheat and the Weeds

The Wheat and the Weeds

By Dcn Patrick Conway

Each spring my wife and I like to get a couple of bags of California wildflower seeds and plant them in our yard. It’s exciting to see the sprouts coming up out of the ground, and there’s the anticipation of wondering what kind of flowers will be revealed.

We’ve learned, however, that the seeds we’ve put in the ground aren’t the only things that will grow in our flower beds. There are other seeds in the soil, as well as some that travel by air and take root. And the precious water that we put on the seeds that we want to grow also causes the unwanted ones to grow.

The problem is, when the flowers and the weeds are coming up out of the ground, we can’t tell the difference between the two. We’re not botanists! So we have to wait until everything is full-grown before we know the difference between the flowers and the weeds. And even then we may not be able to pull up the weeds, because their roots are intertwined with the flowers’ roots. And we’ve also learned that some flowers are late bloomers. We’ll think for sure that they’re weeds until suddenly, beautiful flowers appear. Good thing we didn’t pull them up!

Jesus uses these truths from nature in his parable of the wheat and weeds to teach us essential lessons about the spiritual life, or “the kingdom of heaven” as he calls it. And since this is one of the rare times when he explains the meaning of the parable to his disciples, like he did with the parable of the sower and the seed, we need to pay close attention to his explanation.

Jesus tells us that there are good people and evil people in the world. The good people are the ones who allow the good seed of God’s word to grow in them and to bear the flowers and fruit of loving and compassionate actions. The evil people are the ones who allow the bad seed of the devil, lies and suggestions to do evil, to grow in them and bear the thorns and poisonous fruits of destruction and death.

That is Jesus’s explanation of why and how there are good people and evil people in the world, a simple and straightforward statement. And since it comes directly from Jesus, we have to take it as truth, because he never lies to us.

Just one problem …

The problem is that historically as well as today, when Christians hear this, we often, if not usually, use it to justify our attacks on those whom we believe to be evil. It’s quite an ugly history, and sometimes it has taken the form of imprisonment, torture, and death, other times verbal condemnation and ostracization.

Anthropologists and others have studied this phenomenon, which some call the “scape-goating” mechanism in societies, in which the so-called righteous ones project their own inner evil on some group who are different and not as powerful, and they say, “These people are the problem! Let’s get rid of them! They’re all bad.”

We’ve seen that tragic story play out time and time again in various places around the world, including in our own country today, and always with destructive and deadly results.

And the irony of this is that the so-called righteous ones end up being the real evil ones, because they are not nurturing the seeds of God which cause us to bear the fruit of love for all people. Instead they nurture the divisive, destructive, and deadly seeds of the devil. Jesus comments on this in chapter 7 of Matthew’s gospel: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’” He’s talking to those who call him “Lord,” in other words, Christians. We always think that we’re the good people, but Jesus tells us that when we act like that, we are in fact the evil ones.

Our self-righteous Christian crusades against the so-called evil ones, whether they be military crusades or crusades of moral indignation, always end up making the world a worse place, not a better one.

And this always happen when we don’t listen to the commandment that is in the parable. We hear the explanation that there are good people and evil people in the world, but we miss the central commandment. And the commandment from Jesus is: “Don’t go around trying to attack and eliminate all those whom you believe to be the evil people in the world. You’ll end up destroying everyone, and you’ll end up being the evil people yourselves. I have a plan for getting rid of evil people, and my way is through love and conversion. For I desire not the death of the sinner, but that he live in my love and mercy forever.”

The commandment to us is simply to leave judgment and condemnation to God. We’re not competent in this area, in case you haven’t noticed. We’re not spiritual botanists who can tell a good plant from a weed. And you never know when a weed is going to turn out to be a beautiful flower.

And besides, the truth is that we ourselves have both wheat and weeds growing in the garden of our soul. If we are honest and humble, the Holy Spirit reveals to us both our goodness that God has planted in us, but also our sinfulness, planted by the enemy of our souls.

So what are we to do?

This is our work, the work of tending our own inner gardens, directed by the Holy Spirit, who gives us the courage and grace to change the things about ourselves that we can change, the humble peace that surpasses all understanding as we live with our faults and weaknesses, and the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change and what we just have to put up with – in ourselves.

This is essential if we are to be true followers of Jesus and children of God – that we learn to love sinners, because that’s what Jesus does, that’s what God does – and the main sinner that we have to learn to love is ourselves.

One saint put it this way: We should be very patient and humble in putting up with the faults of others. After all, they have to put up with us.

If we don’t learn to love the sinner who is us, then we will never learn to love the sinners who are around us, which means that we will never learn to love anyone, because everyone is a sinner. And we will continue to think that we’re better than everyone else and to persecute those whom we believe to be the evil ones. Then we end up being the evil ones ourselves.

Let’s not do that. Let us follow the path of true Christianity and ask the Holy Spirit to show us ourselves as God sees us, “a mixture strange of good and ill” as the hymn says, to be merciful and patient with the sinner that we are, and to be merciful and patient with everyone else.

The great Saint Teresa of Avila, whom the Church calls a doctor of the soul, says this: “If we can endure with patience the suffering of being displeasing to ourselves, we will indeed be a pleasing place of refuge to our Lord.”

As we receive him in Holy and Loving Communion, may he and all sinners find in our humble hearts a pleasing place of refuge.

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Posted by on May 14, 2018

Mystagogy: A Journey with the Holy Spirit into Deeper Faith

Mystagogy: A Journey with the Holy Spirit into Deeper Faith

Mystagogy is the fourth and last stage in RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). The term comes from the Greek for “secret.”  The reason this term is appropriate for Christianity is that the tradition understands much of its focus as being on the supernatural. By definition the supernatural is often not known nor experienced through ordinary reasoning or empirical interaction. During the time of Mystagogy, RCIA neophytes are called to deepen their experience of the Sacraments (or Mysteries) received at Easter and to understand them. The sacraments are a primary encounter of Christians with God and thus events with an ineffable dimension.

This time after the Easter Sacraments therefore includes opportunities for experience, reflection and learning.  The most important goal is that neophytes grow in closeness to God. The second goal is that they know the joy of sharing their faith in the community of the Church. Neophytes are then encouraged to reach out eventually to those not part of the church community.

For new Catholics, the Eucharist, a mystery itself, is the model and the means of why and how one can live the life of a new creation. In the Eucharist, Jesus gives himself to believers in a humble and personal way and models the self-giving and purest kind of love that happened at the Crucifixion. The Eucharist transforms and empowers recipients to live a life that is full of the kind of love we see in Jesus. As they are fed, they can go out and feed others.

This new life is not something one can read about and just do. It is not a skill. It is a relationship. As a living relationship with God, it takes time. This relationship grows through the reception of the sacraments, prayer, and doing service. The period of Mystagogy is the beginning of what St. Paul calls “putting on Christ.”  (Romans 13:14)

After the intense months of RCIA, it can be a shock for new Catholics suddenly not to be a part of a group attending the liturgy and practicing prayer, learning, and reflection. Many people involved in RCIA teams, as well as new Catholics, feel that Mystagogy, which usually lasts a month to six weeks, is not nearly long enough. Some parishes have RCIA programs that run one and one half years to two years. Other parishes encourage RCIA graduates to join Bible studies, prayer groups, adult religious education, parish retreats, and ministries within the parish community.

In the end, Mystagogy and the ensuing Christian life are a matter of trust. God lives in our depths and graces us in unseen ways. We often do not know exactly where we are going in life, but we know that Jesus is with us. During Mystagogy, the New Christian is led by the Holy Spirit deeper into God and the life of faith, both a matter of intellectual knowledge and unfathomable mystery. It is the beginning of a great adventure.

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