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Posted by on Sep 18, 2022

God’s Got Friends in Low Places

God’s Got Friends in Low Places

Country music has never been one of my go-to forms of entertainment. It’s not that I don’t like it. No, it can be quite entertaining. It’s just that there are a lot of other genres I find more enjoyable. I like to sing along and the sadness of so many of the country music stories just doesn’t often fit my mood.

So, it struck me as funny at the wedding reception of one of my children to hear the song, “Friends in Low Places,” by Garth Brooks. I’m not sure I had ever heard it before that day, but I really enjoyed dancing to it as I thought of some of my friends in low places – places where most of the guests at the wedding might never have had the chance to find friendships.

Two of these friends lived in the cemetery behind one of our local churches. It was a cemetery that had fallen out of use and was not being tended well. Graves dated back to the mid-1800s and the records of who all were buried there had been lost in a fire in the 1930s. John and Mary, not their real names, camped at the bottom of a small hill beside the cemetery. They took care of it.

Both were alcoholics. Both were chain smokers. I think John may have used other drugs as well. I don’t think Mary did, but she had/has a bipolar condition that doesn’t respond to medication. So, she self-medicates with alcohol and tobacco – not a totally socially acceptable way to handle life, especially for someone who really can’t work a steady job.

John had a family in another state, but he had long since left. His alcoholism and other problems got in the way of maintaining healthy family relationships. He died of a heart attack on the levee beside the river in his late 40s or early 50s. His father had died early of a heart attack too, I learned from Mary.

Where to bury his ashes became the big question. Mary was able to arrange for the parish priest to conduct a prayer service for him in the cemetery where they had been living. I was there with my young daughter. One of the men kindly shared his coat with her because she was cold. Their friends were surprised to learn that I was familiar with the Okanogan Valley in Washington, having grown up with close family friends there and having thinned apples at an orchard there one summer. They had worked in the same area as migrant workers, thinning and picking apples. There wasn’t a place to bury John, but at least we had a service for him and I made memorial cards to share with all.

A while later, it was arranged for John to have a burial spot on the edge of the cemetery, where he and Mary had lived for so long. I hope when the day comes to bury Mary, that she will receive a spot next to him. She still very much loves him.

One day, about a year after he died, Mary saw me as I walked across the cemetery after Mass. She has a very insistent manner of planting herself in front of the person to whom she wants to speak and there’s no doubt but what the conversation will occur! She had had a dream and it was worrying her. John had appeared in the dream. He was in a mobile home, on the bed, and was smiling at her. Was he OK? What did it mean? They had always dreamed of maybe one day having enough money to buy a mobile home and have a roof over their heads. Why this dream now?

I assured her that it was wonderful news. He had come in the dream to let her know that he is OK. He’s with God. He has a home now. I wish you could have seen the smile of joy dawning on Mary’s face. The one she loved is OK. He’s with God. God has friends in low places. At least one of them has a mobile home now!

Mary is still alive. I saw her again just this week. Her alcoholism has once again resulted in her having to leave the housing that had been arranged for her. She managed to remain sober for over 10 years, but the alcoholism and bipolar syndrome got the best of her again. She’s probably in her mid-60s now and plans to move to a larger city where she lived while she was in college. I don’t think it’s a wise idea. She has friends here who watch out for her and no one in the big city. But I can’t snap my fingers and make things right for her. She told me good night and settled in to sleep on the bench outside the church hall.

I have friends in low places too. Please keep her in your prayers.

The story of friends in low places and of John and Mary came to my mind as I read the selections from Amos, St. Paul, and St. Luke this week.

The prophet Amos warns those who complain about religious limitations on commerce and routinely cheat their clients, especially the poor. The Lord has noticed their actions their bragging about taking advantage of the poor. “Never will I forget a thing they have done!” (Amos 8:4-7)

In Psalm 113, we hear it said of the Lord: “He raises up the lowly from the dust; from the dunghill he lifts up the poor to seat them with princes, with the princes of his own people.” Like my friend John, the Lord gives them the mobile home they had always wished they could afford… “Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor.”

St. Paul approaches the question of the Lord’s care for all from a different perspective. (1Tim 2:1-8) The Christian community is very small and has little influence on public policy or the rulers of the land. Paul calls on the community to pray for everyone, “for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.” Paul is not hoping just for a lack of persecution of the Christians, he is speaking of the importance of quiet and tranquility in the lives of the entire community of people living in the area the leaders govern. The common good, with justice for all, is the responsibility of leaders. We are saved as we come to know the truth of God’s care and concern for all of us. Jesus, coming as mediator between God and us, is a prime example of one who has “friends in low places.” We must pray for our leaders and for each other – that we all work together for the common good, with tranquil lives for all as its fruit.

Jesus himself told a story that illustrates the point in a rather surprising way. (Lk 16:1-13) It seems there was a rich man who had a steward. The steward was a business manager, responsible for handling the man’s affairs. The steward had not done a good job of it. Things were a mess and the rich man was not happy. He called the steward to his office and demanded a report of all the accounts and their status. He told the steward that he intended to fire him. Now today, the steward would probably just have been fired on the spot and someone else would have to take on the job of sorting out the accounts. But the rich man gave the steward notice. A mercy towards the steward – one we may hope the Lord will extend to each of us too.

The steward, knowing that he was not going to be able to do manual labor and being too proud to become a beggar, had to figure out what he would do with his life from that point onwards. He was certainly not going to be getting a favorable letter of recommendation from his employer that would allow him to find another administrative job! There was no social safety net either!

He was a pragmatic man. So he found a solution. He called in the folks who owed his employer money. In each case, he arranged a credit for the debtor. For one person he cut the total owed in half. For another it was cut by 20%. He did this for all of the debtors. When the employer discovered what his steward had done, he was not angry. Instead, he praised the steward for having acted prudently. I suspect he might even have chuckled a bit when he received the report of what had happened, given his praise of the steward’s solution to his personal challenge. The steward now had friends who would help him in the transition time.

Jesus himself does not condemn the steward’s actions either. He tells those who are listening to learn from the example of the steward. Make friends for yourselves in your lives now. Jesus speaks of “dishonest wealth.” The word that is translated as dishonest wealth is one that refers to wealth or property in general. Jesus is telling us to be careful with the riches we have in our lives today, whatever their form. Be trustworthy with the gifts God has given you. These gifts you have today are very much less important than the great wealth of the kingdom of God and all the gifts of that eternal kingdom. Use them carefully. Share them generously. Treasure God’s “friends in low places” with whom you come into contact.

Remember these instructions from Jesus with me this week. In many ways, you and I are also God’s friends in low places sometimes. We walk together through our journey.

Friends together.

Find the readings for the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C.

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Posted by on Aug 28, 2022

Hard to be Humble?

Hard to be Humble?

Well over forty years ago, my husband and I liked to go square dancing once a week. We were with a club of mostly older couples, though there were a few younger ones too. The caller was an older man, rather small, with plenty of grey hair – truly ancient… As is done in square dancing, he sang the words of the song, as he inserted the instructions telling us all what to do next in the dance.

A new song at that time was It’s Hard to be Humble, by Mac Davis. We all enjoyed it as our caller sang the chorus, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror, ‘Cause I get better looking each day …” It went on in that vein for several lines, concluding, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, But I’m doing the best that I can!”

Humility, as exemplified in the song, is a tricky thing. There’s the false humility that has a person denying their talents and strengths, because speaking of them has brought, or might bring, charges of boasting. There’s the opposite of humility, in which people consider themselves or their talents to be so much greater than those of their peers that no one can possibly measure up to their standards. Humility does not mean denying one’s gifts and talents. Nevertheless, the fellow boasting of his humility in the song does not particularly impress his listeners as being all that humble.

Part of the challenge with humility is in the multiple meanings of the word when we use it in speaking of our relationships with God and with other humans. Sirach, a Jewish teacher of wisdom around 200 – 175 BC, wrote originally in Hebrew. When it was translated into Greek, the word for humility used is one that can include courtesy, gentleness, and consideration of the feelings of others as part of its meaning. It’s not just knowing one’s own strengths and weakness, it’s also being gentle and careful with the self-image and feelings of others.

Since humility is multifaceted, Sirach presents his insights through a series of proverbs. (Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29) He points out that those who behave with humility will be more loved than those who give a lot of gifts, but do it in a way that makes the recipients feel less worthy. It’s not necessary to seek wisdom in new ways of thinking or in philosophies from other cultures and traditions. Paying attention to the ways God reaches out through the lowly and through the wonders of nature will result in more fruitful growth in humility and wisdom. This is where the humility pleasing to God is to be found, because God is present with the poor. As the Psalmist points out, God is father of orphans, defender of widows, releaser of prisoners, and the one who provides a home for the needy and those who have been driven from their land. (Ps 68) It is with the humble of the earth that the blessings and rewards of humility will be found.

St. Luke presents Jesus speaking of humility in practical terms. (Lk 14:1, 7-14) Jesus has been invited to dinner at the home of a leading Pharisee, an influential man. Everyone is watching him closely to see what he will do. He, in turn, is watching the other guests, observing their efforts to select places of honor at the table. (The table was probably U-shaped, with the places of greatest honor being on the shorter side that joined the two longer sides. The places of lowest honor were at the far ends of the long sides.) As they select their places, Jesus tells them a parable – he presents a picture of a better way to behave both as guests and as hosts.

Imagine a wedding feast to which you have been invited, he tells them. Don’t make the mistake of sitting at the head of the table or other place of honor. If someone more distinguished arrives, you will be told to move to a place of less honor at the table. Do yourself a favor – select a place at the end of the table’s long sides. Then you may be the one instructed to move closer to the wedding party, to the places of honor. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Then Jesus speaks to the host (and to the rest of us). Invite the folks who are normally ignored to celebrate with you at your banquets. They can give you nothing in return, but God will repay you on their behalf, because of the kindness you have shown, the humility of your service.

In all of this, it is God who lifts up and exalts those who act with kindness and compassion, those whose lives demonstrate humility.

The kingdom of God, according to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, will be seen in “the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Heb 12:18-19, 22-24a) The old law was given to Moses in a terrifying manner at Mt. Sinai – with blazing fire, darkness, storms, and the blast of trumpets. The voice that spoke was terrifying and those who heard begged for it all to stop. But the new covenant is found at Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. Angels are gathered at the festivities. So are those enrolled in heaven through baptism and those whose spirits have been made perfect through the experiences that purify their very lives. All are joined and reunited with God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, whose blood “speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” (whose blood shed by his brother cried out to God from the earth).

It’s not easy to be truly humble. Fortunately, we get lots of opportunities to learn humility. As we come down off our pedestals and open our hearts to hear the stories of those around us, we grow closer to our God, who lives intimately with those at the bottom of our human societies. With quiet smiles, gentle words, patient listening, and generous hearts, we meet our God in those whom we encounter on our journey through life. May we be always open to receive God’s smile in return from those whom we serve.

Find the readings for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C.

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Posted by on Aug 7, 2022

Living in Faith – A Long-term Commitment

Living in Faith – A Long-term Commitment

A life of faith – what is it and how does it happen?

It seems to me that a life of faith is an adventure, begun by each individual person, with many companions discovered along the way. For some, it is a gradual experience of growing up in a family or community of others who are travelers on the way. For others, it’s a process of growing into faith through the example of friends or colleagues. Once in a while, it’s the result of an unanticipated encounter with the Lord that opens new worlds and paths.

Regardless of how a life of faith begins, it is a long-term commitment.

The author of the Book of Wisdom, spends many chapters reminding listeners of the history of faith of the Hebrew people. In the reading for this Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, he reminds his audience of the night of the Passover. (Wis 18:6-9) He is writing in the city of Alexandria, about 100 years before the birth of Christ to remind the Jewish community there of the ways God worked on behalf of their ancestors and how those ancestors responded. He has described the events leading up to the exodus from Egypt, including the many plagues. Now he reminds them and us that the Lord warned the Hebrews of the final blow against Pharoah. Families were to gather, offer a lamb in sacrifice, put its blood on the door frame, then roast and eat it together. The bread they would eat was to be unleavened, as if they were running away and there was no time to prepare a meal properly. That night, the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Hebrews. The blood of the lamb on the door frames identified and protected them. This event was and is celebrated annually ever since that first Passover night.

The Hebrew people had held on to the faith of their ancestors for hundreds of years by the time of these events. They remembered the Lord’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When they left Egypt, they took the remains of Jacob and his son Joseph with them to the Promised Land.

The Psalmist sings of the great blessing it is to be one of the Lord’s own in Psalm 33. The Lord has chosen a people for his own inheritance. “Exult, you just, in the Lord.” The Lord delivers his own from famine and death. He is a help and shield. “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.” Not just in easy times, but also through the ups and downs, the hard times of life.

The faith of another ancestor of the Hebrew people is given as an example in the Letter to the Hebrews. (Heb 11:1-2, 8-19) It’s not at all clear who the author of this letter was or to whom it was addressed. It was written before 100 CE. It has been attributed to St. Paul, but most likely it was another of the early Christian missionaries. The author speaks of faith as something hoped for that comes to be – something that gives evidence for what cannot be seen. He gives the example of the lives of Abraham and Sarah.

Abraham and Sarah were from Ur, an area in modern day Iraq. They had traveled with family to an area north of Palestine. Then, following the Lord’s call, they moved south into Palestine. They lived there as traveling shepherds for most of the rest of their lives. There was a brief time in Egypt as well, but mostly they lived in Palestine.

Through a variety of encounters with the Lord, Abraham was transformed from a man named Abram to become the father of two great nations – Jewish and Arab. His descendants became “numerous as the stars” as the Lord had promised. But it was not without trials and difficulties along the way. The author of this letter points out, that the focus of Abraham and his wife Sarah was on the new homeland to which they had been led. They never owned the land themselves. They were always “strangers and aliens” there – much as Green Card holders are in the United States. If Abraham and Sarah had wanted to do so, they could have returned to the land of their birth, but they had found a new Lord and received the promise of a new homeland from him. They held on to that promise, even when it seemed the Lord was demanding the sacrifice of the son of their old age.

A life of faith takes many twists and turns. It’s not always easy. Things aren’t always clear. Some things can be very difficult.

“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock…” Jesus speaks these words of encouragement to his followers. “For your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom … where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Lk 12:32-48) It’s not easy to trust that God will provide whatever is truly needed. He has just spoken of the rich man who built a new barn to hold his abundant harvest, but would die that night! Trust God, he tells them and all of us. Lilies in the field are beautiful. They don’t fret or work for their beauty. You are worth much more than the flowers. So don’t be afraid. God will provide what you need too.

Yet Jesus knows that it’s hard to wait sometimes. We can start out being very trusting and sure that we are ready for whatever will come in our lives as followers of the Lord. We want to be ready when we meet him in our lives now and later. But there is a danger too. It’s easy to get discouraged or distracted, to fall into the habit of doing things that benefit us personally rather than building up the kingdom. Jesus warns that those who are given more responsibility and greater gifts are expected to use them as intended by the one who gave them these gifts. “More will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”

These are serious words. In a life of faith, the initial excitement and wonder of the encounter with the Lord is a great starting point. But excitement wears off and the realities and challenges of daily living creep up on us again. God’s time is much longer than ours. God’s plans take longer to bear fruit. We are part of the plans, and so are many other people. We travel together, encouraging each other, helping each other through the rough times, rejoicing with each other in the good times.

Faith is both a personal and a communal commitment. How can I help you in the journey? How do I depend on you for help? Will I be humble enough to ask and accept your help when I need it? Where do we see the Lord? Where do we refuse to see him? Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief – an old rhyme, but perhaps important to remember. We might add, immigrant, refugee, invading soldier, LGBTQ neighbor or family member, woman, child, gang member, ex-convict, bossy relative … Where do we see the Lord?

Let’s pray for each other, that we be able to continue on this long-term journey of faith. Reaching out to our world and all we meet with eyes that see others as children of God, sisters and brothers, may we be people of patient, persistent faith. May we rejoice in the adventure as we discover the face of our God in so many others and in so many places. A life of faith is not to be something hard that weighs us down. “Do not fear, little flock!” The Father wants to give us the kingdom. May our eyes be open to see the kingdom, our ears be open to hear it, and our hearts be open to receive it as we move through the days of our lives.

Click for a lovely musical setting of Do not fear from Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam

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Posted by on Jul 31, 2022

Vanities of Vanities – What is Worth Holding On To?

Vanities of Vanities – What is Worth Holding On To?

“Vanity of Vanities, says Qoheleth … All things are vanity!”

Wow! Now isn’t that encouraging and uplifting! No? Well then, let’s see what more might be happening here.

Let’s start with a question. Who is Qoheleth and why is this person quoted in an entire book of the Hebrew Scriptures? Maybe a couple of other questions too. Why such a discouraging/depressing perspective? What does it mean to say something is vanity?

Qoheleth is the pen name of an unknown sage, a person recognized for wisdom. These words were written about 300 years before the birth of Jesus. The text of the book of Ecclesiastes has Qoheleth claiming to be the son of King David, presumably King Solomon, who was known for his wisdom. But in the time these words were recorded, the thoughts of anyone who wrote or taught about or with wisdom might be credited to Solomon. Qoheleth is a name meaning teacher or “speaker in an assembly.” Ecclesiastes is the Latin form of the name.

The word vanity also has a particular meaning. It refers to something that is quickly passing, a vapor or a breath. It’s short-lived, without substance, futile, mysterious, hard to understand.

Qoheleth tells us that everything is short-lived and passing. Things come and go. They flourish and then they are gone. We work hard and prosper, then we die and someone else benefits from our work. We fret and worry, but in the end our worry doesn’t change things. (Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23)

It’s not an easy message to hear, especially for folks, like most of us, whose culture says that if we just work hard enough, we can get ahead in life and have what we dream of having. Qoheleth says that this is just a dream that will certainly pass, regardless of how hard we strive.

The book of Ecclesiastes is a compilation of observations, proverbs, and reflections on the explanations commonly heard as humans try to account for the unpredictable nature of life and existence. The text ends with a repeat of the initial statement. “Vanity of vanities, says Quoheleth, all things are vanity!” Yet this is not the last word in the book. An editor adds a bit of explanation and hope in an Epilogue that follows this statement: “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgement every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.”

Many years after Qoheleth’s observations, a family was fighting over an inheritance, according to St. Luke in today’s Gospel. One of them appealed to Jesus to resolve the dispute. But Jesus refused to get into the middle of the conflict. Instead, he warned against putting too much value on riches and possessing them. He told the story of a man whose harvest was greater than expected. The barn was too small to hold it all, so he tore it down and built a bigger one. Then he rejoiced that he would have plenty for many years to come. But, as it turns out, his life was to end that very night! God asked the man, “the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” (Lk 12:13-21) Jesus commented that this will be the result for anyone who holds on to treasure but is “not rich in what matters to God.”

The Psalmist (Ps 90) sings of the relationship between God and humans – the difference in perspective and years as they play out in the relationship. Our days are short. God’s are long – a thousand years are like a watch of the night, a few hours. Yet we are invited and reminded to open our hearts when we hear the voice of the Lord. And we hope and pray that we will be filled with joy and gladness all the days of our lives.

So, if the things we seek and work for are not going to last or bring satisfaction and peace to us, what are we to do? Qoheleth is right. Our time passes quickly. When we are children, time seems to take a long time to pass. As we get older, it seems to speed up every year.

St. Paul reminds the Colossians and all of us that we have been raised to new life in Christ. (Col 3:1-5, 9-11) The things that characterize life without Christ are not to be hallmarks of our lives. No lying, taking advantage of others, running roughshod over our competitors, etc. Our lives are to be based on Christ and his life. That is where and when the difference will truly appear, a perspective foreshadowed in the Epilogue of Ecclesiastes.

What, then, are we to do? All things are passing. No matter how hard we work to get ahead in life, there are no guarantees of fame, long life, health, or comfort. What do we do? Just give up and laze around?

What do we hold on to? How do we hold on? To what do we hold? Many ways to phrase the question, each with a slightly different perspective. Is there a life raft of some sort to which we can cling? What can help us persevere in our lives? What do we value? What gives us hope and strength to continue? Where is the oxygen-mask we can use on this flight?

I enjoy listening to the stories told on The Moth Radio Hour when I’m out on errands in town. Each episode includes four to six stories of true-life experiences, told by the individual to whom they happened. Some are sad, some are happy, many include funny moments, some are incredibly beautiful.

I was out on errands again today and heard three stories. One was about a young man’s very funny experience presenting a science experiment to second graders. Another told of an incident of road rage that turned into a chance to re-evaluate his life and set a new course. One featured a woman injured by prejudice in childhood and the example of her father’s strength that now gives her strength to stand up and protect others today. In each story, there was a gem of wisdom and I found myself nodding and smiling at their insights.

Yes, Qoheleth is right. So is Jesus. Things that we work so hard to get in our lives may not actually be worth all the effort we put into getting them. Whether they are valuable or not, our lives are totally not our own. We cannot control or know how long we will live, when we will depart this window of life, or what will happen after our departure.  All things are Vanity! Ephemeral! Passing! Even the asbestos checks my father used to joke about some people needing to have ready before their deaths probably won’t go very far…

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to hold on to. Many things are worth holding on to – laughter, joy, compassion, courage, hopefulness, community, shared efforts. As followers of Jesus, and hopefully as wise human beings, we reach out to each other. We offer a word of comfort or of hope when things are tough. We tell stories to lighten the mood. We remember the good times and search for seeds of hope in the hard times. We reflect on what we have learned through failure and hold firmly to the hope that we’ll continue to learn as we go along. We share what we have with those whose journey has left them needing the basics for life. We sit in silence with those who just need someone to be with them in time of deep loss. We share what we have learned with the children among us, preferably through stories, encouragement, songs, and humor. (Lectures just get boring…)

Life is not for the fainthearted. But life is good. It’s a marvelous gift overflowing from the great dance of LOVE that is our God. We hold on to the hope and promise of that love through thick and thin. Yes, what we see around us is passing and mysterious. That’s part of what makes it so wonderful. Each moment brings a new door or window opening, giving a glimpse of the underlying meaning of existence.

Here’s hoping you and I are able to hold lightly to the material things we need for our daily lives and keep in perspective the limitations of our efforts. Laugh frequently. Pray confidently. Hold close those with whom we share our lives.

The readings today are from the liturgy for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

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Posted by on Jul 17, 2022

Choosing the Better Part

Choosing the Better Part

Sometimes it seems there are not enough hours in the day to complete all the tasks expected of each one of us. We get up in the morning filled with hope that today will go as planned and expected. Then as we get started, something else pops up that demands attention, or someone calls who needs help. The entire day’s plan has to be set aside. Maybe tomorrow …

Yet sometimes, those disruptions lead to very special outcomes. I remember one afternoon many, many years ago when the front doorbell rang just as I was preparing to go out the other door with my very young daughter to buy groceries. A young man was at the door. He said he had come to meet with my husband. (As it turned out, he had a software program to present and my husband was expecting him.  I didn’t know he was coming, but he was expected.) I called my husband, who came out of the office to welcome him, and I went on my way.

When I returned home, groceries in hand, my sons asked, “Mom, did you bring a chicken and an onion? John (not his real name) is going to fix dinner for us.” I responded, “Who is John? And yes, I brought a chicken and an onion.”

That evening’s dinner was wonderful and the start of a long, rich, sometimes hilarious, friendship with John.

The story of Abraham and his three visitors (Gen 18:1-10a) which we hear in the readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time is similar in some respects. Abraham is sitting in the shade, near the door of his tent, on a very hot day. The location is described as “by the terebinth of Mamre.” For those hearing the story centuries ago, this was an important detail, telling quite precisely where the events about to unfold occurred.

For the rest of us, a bit of background. A terebinth is a type of tree that grows to be quite large – almost like a very large shrub, with many stalks growing from the same root, but like a tree because of its final height. The name Mamre is a reference to a specific area of land in southern Israel, west of the Jordan River. An ancient Amorite chief named Mamre lived in the area and helped Abraham when Abraham’s brother Lot was in danger. Travelers frequently passed through the area and eventually it became a pilgrimage site for peoples of many belief systems.

Three men suddenly appeared nearby. Abraham wasn’t frightened by their sudden appearance. Instead, he ran to greet them, bowing before them in welcome and asking them to stop for a while, wash their hot, tired feet, and have a bite to eat before going on their way. The men agreed to stop.

Abraham hurried to the door of the tent and asked his wife Sarah to prepare rolls for the meal, using their best flour. He chose a tender young steer from the herd to be butchered and prepared for the meal. Then he got out curds and milk to serve with it all. It was a feast, not just a quick sandwich and glass of water!

Abraham served his guests and waited under the tree as they ate. When they finished, they asked Abraham where Sarah was. They knew her name, though it would not ordinarily have been part of the conversation at that time. Sarah was in the tent – women did not come out to welcome strange men who were passing by their homes. One of the visitors promised Abraham that within a year, Sarah would have a son.

The reading for this day ends on this note. It doesn’t tell the rest of the story. Here’s some of the rest of it. Sarah laughed when she heard such a crazy thing. She and Abraham were both old. She was well past child-bearing age. She had been unable to have children. Such a thing was impossible. But such a thing came to pass. And when it did, she and Abraham named the child Isaac, a name meaning “I laughed.”

Abraham realized only later that afternoon, as he walked on towards Sodom while visiting with his guests, that the visitors were the Lord and two of his messengers. But that is another story for another day.

For Abraham and Sarah, that day’s time spent in service to unexpected visitors was blessed and rewarded bountifully. They chose the better part in welcoming their guests.

The Psalmist reminds us, those who do justice “will live in the presence of the Lord.”  (Ps 15) Where do we find the presence of the Lord? In acts of kindness and justice, in speaking truthfully about others, in refusing to hurt a neighbor or innocent ones, in lending resources freely without demanding payment of interest. These are the ones who do justice. This is where we find the presence of the Lord. Choosing the better part…

St. Paul points out to the Colossians (1:24-28) that in the hardships he has endured, the body of Christ is being built-up. As his words and his very presence have been rejected by his own Jewish community, the door has opened for Gentiles, non-Jews, to become believers in Christ and part of his body, the church. All peoples of the world can now become perfect in Christ. Again, the better part…

Finally, we hear the story of Martha and her sister Mary on that fateful day when Jesus and his friends arrived for dinner. (Lk 10:38-42) It is a story that has long troubled me and many others. Why, oh why, would Jesus have told Martha that Mary had chosen the better part? Who was going to make sure all of those people got something to eat if the women of the family didn’t get busy and prepare the meal? Why should one of them alone get to sit with the guests, when she herself (Martha) would love to have been sitting there too if it were not necessary for someone to behave responsibly and prepare the meal?

Yet Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…”

How do we choose the better part? Where does the time appear? Will everyone get a meal? Will the bills get paid?

As I move through the years, I’m beginning to be a bit more reconciled to the idea that taking time out to be with the Lord and listen is not necessarily a bad or foolish thing! (Now, please don’t laugh too loudly here! Some of us learn more slowly than others.)

I’ve come to believe that it’s actually possible to do some of both, maybe all of both – be with the Lord and have time to care for home, family, and those around us. A prayer when waking up and greeting the day, Morning Prayer (at some time before noon on really busy days), the Angelus at lunch time or when fixing dinner, a smile and thanks to God for the sunshine or a child’s remark or a meal shared, a call for help before speaking with a troubled friend, a recognition that God is present there in the kitchen as meals are being prepared and the dishes are being washed, a word of gratitude while falling asleep. All are times and places that God is found to be present. When we keep our eyes and ears open, we can hear God’s voice in the daily round of activities.

If we are able to slip away during the day or go away for a day or two on retreat, that’s a great gift. It can help refresh and renew us. But we mustn’t wait for those times. Find them during the day. Be open to the surprise visits the Lord will make during ordinary days. Visit with a friend who calls. Welcome and spend time with guests, expected or unexpected. Share a smile with a person at the grocery store. Wait patiently for the adult who is dealing with a tired, hungry, angry child. Use the time in the line at the store to pray for those around you and be grateful that you can be there yourself.

Choose the better part!

P.S. If you’ve got time for another story, here’s one from my life in 2009. https://blog.theologika.net/having-a-martha-like-day-on-the-feast-of-st-martha-july-29/

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Posted by on Jul 10, 2022

Something Very Near to You

Something Very Near to You

Reading these words, “something very near to you,” I find myself wondering, what is very near to me? What do I treasure most? What is a fundamental part of me that might not even be consciously mine? Do I even know what is very near to me?

As Moses and the Israelites approach the promised land after forty years of travels through the Sinai Peninsula and lands to the east of the Jordan River, he realizes that the time has come to pass the leadership of the community into younger hands. He is now old and the end of his days is at hand.

In this first reading for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Moses gives some final instructions and his final plea/dream to the people. “If only you would heed the voice of the Lord … and keep his commandments…” (Dt 30:10-14) He calls on them to return once again to the Lord, “with all your heart and all your soul.”

Early in their travels, Moses had gone up to the mountaintop and received the tablets containing the Law from the Lord God. He brought the Law down to the people and it became the foundation of their way of life and traditions. Sometimes they followed it well. Other times not. Always it was the basis of their agreement, their Covenant, with God.

As it becomes obvious that Moses will not be leading them when they enter the new land, they must have wondered, who will now bring the Law to us? Who will be the intermediary with God? Where will our leader need to go to find God and bring instructions to us?

Moses corrects the notion that the Law by which they live is something mysterious and remote that needs to be found in the sky or across the sea, or in some other far-off land. No one needs to travel far to retrieve and bring it back to the people so they will know how to live. He tells them, “No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”

What is written in the Law?

St. Luke brings us a picture of what it means to live according to the Law. (Lk 10:25-37) A student of the Law, a person who had spent many years studying Jewish laws and tradition, asked Jesus a question. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus went right back to basics. “What is written in the law?” The man responded with a condensed statement of Mosaic law. “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

This answer was absolutely correct. No need to add anything more. No need to travel to the sky or across the sea. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus assured the man that nothing more would be needed.

Then came the follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?” This is one we all need to contemplate. Is my neighbor the person living next door, on my block, on the other side of the block, my village, my region of the country, my country? How far out do I need to go before those I meet cease to be my neighbor and I no longer need to love them?

Today we often hear, “There’s an app for that!” We might equally well say, “With Jesus, there’s a parable for that!”

Jesus told a story. There was a man who was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho. This was a mountainous area, with lots of bandits along the way. He was attacked, beaten, robbed, and left half-dead beside the road.

Two men passed by the wounded traveler, but moved to the opposite side of the road as they walked by him. Neither stopped. One was a priest, the other a Levite.

(Time out of the story for a bit of explanation. Priests were descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses, who offered sacrifice in the temple. They were subject to strict rules of purity and behavior because they entered the most holy places. Levites were members of the tribe of Levi, descendants of the third son of Jacob and Leah. Levites assisted with services and worship at the temple, but were not priests. They filled roles that we would call musicians, song-leaders, acolytes, lectors, greeters, administrators, guards/guides, artists, designers, and so forth. They were held to higher standards of purity in obedience to the Law, but not as high as those for priests.)

So a priest and a Levite passed the man. The story doesn’t say whether they were on the way to Jerusalem or on the way back, but it really didn’t matter to Jesus. The point was that they were people who had higher than average position and responsibility in society and in worship, and they did not stop to help.

Another traveler came along the road. This person was from Samaria. Samaritans were hated by Jews. They were descended from some of the people who had been left behind during the Babylonian exile. Their land had been conquered earlier and the survivors had adapted their religious beliefs and practices to include some of what came from the conquerors. They worshiped on mountaintops rather than in Jerusalem. Folks traveling between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north tried to go around Samaria or spend as little time as possible there. These were not folks one would expect to find as heroes in a story told by a good Jew.

Yet this is exactly the person Jesus presents as the hero of the story. The Samaritan sees the injured man and takes pity on him. He gives first aid, loads him on his own donkey, and takes him to an inn. He cares for him there overnight, then leaves money for the innkeeper to continue caring for him, with a promise to reimburse any additional costs as he (the Samaritan) returns along the way.

Jesus asks a simple question, “Which one of these three … was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” The answer is clear – the Samaritan who was merciful. Jesus agrees and adds, “Go and do likewise.”

The command of the Law was closer to the heart of the Samaritan in this case than to the other two travelers. Care for the one in need of help, whoever that is, trumps ritual purity and practice or other societal norms.

Would it be closer for you or me? Hmmm.

How can all of this be possible?

A hymn from the early church, shared by St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians, gives a hint of how this can be possible. (Col 1:15-20) “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” All things were created through him and for him, even the great principalities and powers of the spirit world. Everything is held together because of him. He’s the head of the church, his body. The fullness (God) dwelt in him, the human man, and reconciled all things through him. Peace between God and creation was achieved through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

We are the body of Christ. We, the human members of the community. Jesus lives in us and we in and through him. Because of this, we have a real chance of living the law of love that he taught. The law that Moses says is “something very near to you” and Jesus presents as the foundation of loving a neighbor as ourselves.

Is living the law of love always easy? No. Is it always the popular thing to do? No. Is it always totally clear how to live? Not always, but there are hints if we keep our eyes and hearts open. Do our cultures and societies make this very easy? Not really. It’s much easier to love those who are like ourselves and with whom we share experiences, language, and culture. Do we have to love other folks anyway, even if we don’t like what we see? Yes. Can it just be an intellectual, “My heart goes out to you?” No. It must be practical.

“Go and do likewise.” “It is something very near to you … you have only to carry it out.”

Lord, help me to listen to your voice speaking through my heart. Help us to come together in loving service.

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Posted by on Jun 26, 2022

“All er Nothin”

“All er Nothin”

When I was a little girl, getting ready for first grade, my mother was quite worried. I loved to sing. This would not typically be an issue, but two of my favorite songs were from the musical Oklahoma. The songs in question were not something lovely like “Oh what a beautiful morning,” or something rousing like “Oklahoma.” No, my favorites were the ones sung by Ado Annie, the young woman with a less than stellar reputation for faithfulness or prudence in relationships. These songs, especially in the Broadway play version we had on our record, were quite risqué. Mom was afraid I would sing them to “Sister” and scandalize her (whoever she turned out to be). As soon as the movie version, with more family-friendly lyrics, was available, she bought it for us and that was the record I was allowed to enjoy.

Of Ado Annie’s two songs, “I Cain’t Say No” and “All Er Nothin,” the one that comes to mind and is running through my head after looking at the readings for the Thirteen Sunday in Ordinary Time, is “All Er Nothin.” Annie’s boyfriend, Will, has just returned from the big city, Kansas City, with tales of what “modren livin” is going to be – indoor plumbing, gas buggies goin by theirselves, buildings twenty stories high, etc. Will has heard rumors that Annie hasn’t exactly been the most faithful girlfriend while he was away. He confronts her in the song “All Er Nothin,” declaring “With me it’s all er nothin. Is it all er nothin with you?” She asks for clarification, and the song continues with examples and conditions. If you haven’t heard it, it’s worth checking out. (The same goes for “I Cain’t Say No”!)

In the first reading, Elijah the prophet receives instruction from God to anoint Elisha to be his successor as prophet. (1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21) Elijah has been in trouble with the rulers of the land off and on for a long time. He has just met God on the mountaintop, recognizing his presence in a gentle breeze. Now he has been sent to find the man who will succeed him as prophet in Israel.

When Elijah found Elisha, the latter was plowing the land. He had twelve yoke of oxen, the large team of a prosperous family. Elijah didn’t spend any time explaining why he had come or what his plans were. He simply approached Elisha and threw his cloak over him. In this way, he signaled that the cloak of prophet of the Lord was now his too.

Elijah didn’t stick around to explain what his action meant. Elisha understood immediately what had just happened. He ran after Elijah and requested permission to return to his family and tell them goodbye. Elijah didn’t refuse the request. He simply told Elisha to go back, adding, “Have I done anything to you?” At this Elisha makes his decision. He kills the oxen, burns his plowing equipment to cook the oxen, and gives the meat to the people to eat. Then he follows Elijah as an apprentice, learning to be the Lord’s prophet. All or nothing …

The psalmist sings in praise of the Lord, who is a refuge, gives counsel, is faithful, leads on the path of life and is his inheritance. With the Lord, nothing is lacking. (Ps 16)

St Paul writes to the Galatians (5:1, 13-18) with a similar theme. A huge controversy was raging over whether non-Jews (aka Gentiles) had to become Jews and be subject to the Law of Moses in order to become Followers of the Way (aka Christians). Paul said no and so did the leadership in Jerusalem when they were consulted. The reasoning backing up this decision included the understanding that the Law had been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. The new Law of freedom to love took the place of the old laws that dictated what, where and when people were allowed to engage in particular activities. There were food prohibitions, rules about when and how work could be done, with whom one might speak, and many more. The new freedom to act in love superseded these old rules. If someone needed to be helped on the Sabbath, for example, then the new law required Jesus’ follower to help. No foods except blood, meat from strangled animals, and foods sacrificed to idols were prohibited. Women and men were equally children of God.

This new freedom did not mean license to do whatever one wished – that would be a question of acting according to the flesh. No, to act according to the Spirit required doing what would be best for the other person, what one would wish for oneself. Service in this new freedom is based on love.  Only in love can one live in the Spirit. It’s again a question of “All er nothin!”

Finally, we see Jesus as he sets out for Jerusalem for the final time. Luke (9:51-62) describes Jesus’ single-minded focus on this journey. If those in the Samaritan village didn’t welcome them, OK, move on to another village. No time to stop and try to change their minds or punish them either! If someone offers to follow Jesus, OK, but know that we’re not going to be settling down anywhere along the way. “The Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” (Son of Man was a term used in reference to the coming Messiah in Jewish tradition. Jesus used it to refer to himself.) Someone else wanted to go home and bury his father, but Jesus had no time to wait. “Let the dead bury their dead.” In other words, Let those who are not with me take care of each other. “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” It’s all or nothing!

These are strong words and images. How do we understand them today? Are we to take them literally? How do we act in loving freedom to address the pressing issues of our day? Wars are raging, between nations, between gangs, between religious groups… Refugees are camped at the borders. Some are allowed to enter. Others with equally horrendous stories of probable personal danger are turned away. Issues of protection of the vulnerable among us divide our communities. Who is to be protected and how far will we go to help? It’s all well and good to speak in generalities. Who will pay the ultimate price of decisions that are being made far away by folks who don’t know us or our situations?

It’s not an easy time. We are called to the Law of Love, to the Freedom of the Spirit. Let us pray today and in the days to come for the courage to respond wholeheartedly, in prayer and in compassion, to the needs of our sisters and brothers. Not relying on logic and rules, but on the requirements of loving support and accompaniment.

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Posted by on Jan 9, 2022

The Baptism of the Lord – Beginning with Prayer

The Baptism of the Lord – Beginning with Prayer

Baptism of ChristThe Sunday after the Epiphany is celebrated as The Baptism of the Lord. On this day we transition from the first two special seasons of the Church year (Advent and Christmas) to the counted weeks of the year, Ordinary (meaning Counted) Time. Our focus shifts from readings preparing us for the coming of the Lord and those telling of the fulfillment of the prophecies of his coming with his birth, to those that detail just what he did when he came. What he taught and how people responded will be the focus of our readings in Ordinary Time.

Through the years, I have often heard it said that Jesus “submitted” to John’s baptism as a model for all of us. Jesus was without sin, so there was really no need for him to enter into the Jordan River and receive the baptism of repentance that John preached. As we look back on these events, it’s tempting to see them with 20/20 hindsight. We believe that Jesus is sinless, an unblemished human, who gave himself as the perfect model of fidelity to God’s will. Christian writers through the centuries have reflected on the image of Jesus as the perfect and final lamb offered in sacrifice to God, for the “expiation of sin,” an offering in blood to make up for Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden.

Yet I find myself thinking there might be something else here to notice. Jesus grew up in a family in a small village. His father was a tradesman. His mother was a homemaker. These were both full-time jobs. Both worked to support their life as a family and Jesus would have been part of that working community, doing his share of the chores along with his parents. As a child he learned of his faith and celebrated Bar Mitzvah, becoming a man in his community. He learned a trade and began working as a carpenter, a tradesman like his father. His life was so completely unremarkable that when he came home to Nazareth later to teach the members of his community of faith, they were not able to see past the normality of his life as they had known it and recognize the gift he was bringing to them.

Then when he was about 30, his cousin John came out of the desert and began preaching up and down the Jordan River. John spoke of the coming of the Messiah, the one so long ago promised. He taught about caring for each other and living justly. People went out to see him. John spoke of repentance, a long-time theme among prophets. Return to living as the people of the covenant! Make straight the way of the Lord! Many wondered if he might not be the Promised One himself.

Now, wander in your imagination with me for a moment.  Let’s assume that Jesus was an ordinary man. He didn’t know the full implications of anything he did in the course of his life. He didn’t know he was God become human. He didn’t know that he had never sinned, never deliberately hurt anyone or broken the Law. But I wonder if there might not have been times when he was uncertain whether his actions had been the right ones or not. Might he have thought that there were things he would have done differently if he had been given a chance? A sort of “do-over” that we humans often could use? If this was indeed true, then it makes sense that Jesus, a good and just man who was trying to be the best person he could, always faithful to his God and the covenant, would go to the Jordan to hear John preach and enter the water to be baptized, to be renewed in his life of faith.

We know that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and we celebrate that today. When he came out of the river, dripping wet, he stopped to pray, to reflect on what he had experienced there in the water, and maybe to recommit himself to God and his life of faith. St. Luke tells us that as Jesus was praying, “heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” The coming of God’s Holy Spirit was palpable. It was like a dove gently landing on his shoulder might have felt. It was physically noticeable. It could be felt. Then Jesus heard a voice from heaven, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” The coming of God could be heard too. (Lk 3:15-16, 21-22)

This experience changed the course of Jesus’ life. It was a kind of conversion experience, though he was not a person who had lived a life of great sin or disobedience to God’s commands. He left the Jordan River a different person than when he had come. His consciousness had changed. He still didn’t know that he was the second person of the Trinity. He didn’t know that he was God become human. He didn’t know that his life would change much of the human history that followed. But he knew something had happened. He was praying and he experienced God’s presence and touch in his life in a very special way. His response was to pray some more. He went to the desert to reflect and pray. When he returned, he began to preach, teach, and heal. We’ll hear much more about that as the year goes on. The point today is that his life was forever changed when he entered into a time of reflection and symbolic washing. He emerged as the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, foretold by John and the prophets who had come before.

The first and second readings also speak of the role of the Spirit in the life of the Messiah. Isaiah quotes the Lord as saying he has put his spirit upon the chosen one, the one in whom he is pleased. This chosen one will bring justice to the nations, but peacefully, without shouting or crushing anything that is less than perfect and healthy (bruised reeds or smoldering wicks, for example). (Is 42:1-4,6-7) There is an alternate first reading as well, also from Isaiah. In this one, the Lord speaks words of comfort to those in exile, promising they will return to their own land, with the Lord himself leading them. A voice cries out in the desert, “prepare the way of the Lord.” (Is 40:1-5, 9-11)

St. Paul, in his letter to Titus, remarks that when “God our savior appeared…he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” (Ti 2:11-14; 3:4-7) This bath of rebirth is our baptism with water. It’s not the same as John’s baptism of repentance, but something even better. It brings an entirely new life, a sharing in God’s divine life through the Holy Spirit.

In another optional reading from the Acts of the Apostles (10:34-38), Luke tells us about Peter’s experience with the household of Cornelius, a Roman centurion who was instructed in a dream to send to Peter and have him come to his home. Peter was hesitant, but when he arrived, he discovered that the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon Cornelius and his family. This confirmed for Peter that the Gospel was for all people, not just for Jews. And the rebirth of baptism was opened to all of us.

In each of these readings, we see the importance of prayer and the gift of the Holy Spirit pouring out on the one who prays, opening up new vistas for life. If even Jesus, the Son of God, needed to pray and open himself to God’s gifts, how much more important is it for us to do the same? We won’t all have dramatic experiences of God’s coming into our lives more deeply. For some it will be a much more gradual, silent, gentle deepening of awareness of the Presence. For others it will be more dramatic. (Those dramatic moments and encounters still happen in our day, sometimes during experiences of prayer or meditation.) The important thing is to remember to pray.

So, let’s take this as our plan for Ordinary time this year. Make time for prayer. There are lots of times and ways to pray. Need to wash your hands for 20 seconds for COVID prevention? A “Hail Mary” and a “Glory Be” will take about 20 seconds. The Angelus is traditionally prayed at in the morning, at noon and at 6 pm. Keep a copy of it inside a cupboard door in the kitchen and pray it as you fix dinner. Eventually you’ll remember it and can pray it in the morning and at noon too! The rosary can be prayed any time, even without a set of beads. Our five fingers on each hand make a great decade counter. Having trouble going to sleep at night, pray the rosary and don’t worry if you fall asleep as you pray (a.k.a. “praying with Jesus in the boat”). Mass is celebrated every day except Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Visit a church once in a while for Mass on a weekday if you are able to fit it into your schedule. Liturgy of the Hours was developed a long time ago for people who couldn’t gather with the Christian community on a daily basis to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It’s available on-line now or in books such as Christian Prayer. Download Liturgy of the Hours to your phone and it’s ready whenever and wherever you are.

As we celebrate The Baptism of the Lord and the beginning of Ordinary Time, let’s dedicate the same attention to prayer as we do during the special seasons of the year. God is here now, just waiting eagerly to hear from us.

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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 Nov 21, 2021

King of the Universe!

King of the Universe!

Sometimes when children are playing, one or another will exclaim, “I’m King of Everything!” Today we celebrate the final Sunday of our liturgical year, The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. In this case, it’s not a question of the exuberant, excited cry of a child in a game. The Christian community, through the centuries, has proclaimed this truth, both in direct statements and in apocalyptic images.

Predictions of the coming of a savior often appear in the Hebrew Scriptures during times of exile and persecution. This savior comes and acts as the agent of God in opening the final age of salvation history, the time in which God will become the ruler over all things. The human (Son of Man) who is the instrument of God in all this upheaval and transition is to be raised to a heavenly level, implying a divine status of some sort.

Our reading from the Book of Daniel (7:13-14) describes a vision received in the night. Someone like a Son of man is coming, but not with a human army or traveling in a normal human way. This individual is coming on the clouds of heaven. The destination of this Son of man (human) is not a standard one either. The Son of man comes to the Ancient One. Who is the Ancient One? This is a title for God. This human, who has served as agent to open the new age, comes before God. God gives him dominion (authority as a ruler), glory (renown, magnificence, splendor), and kingship over all times and peoples. This new status and role will continue for all eternity.

In Psalm 93, the term Lord is used. In this context Lord is the word used to speak of God. Jews do not use God’s actual name, because if a person knows the name of another, there is some power over the other individual. Call that individual’s name and the individual will respond. God made clear from the beginning that no one else will be in charge. This is the reason for the prohibition on using God’s actual name and substituting the word Lord.

The Lord is king, dressed in strength, making the world firm and ruling from everlasting to everlasting. The decrees/statements/commands of the Lord are worthy of trust. This is a hymn of great trust and joy.

The early Christians had to figure out where their friend and teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, fit into the whole picture. The book of Revelation was probably written sometime in the years 81-96 CE, during the persecution of Christians under the reign of the emperor Domitian. The identity of the author is unknown, though the name John is assigned to this person.

Today’s reading is from the very beginning of the book (Rev 1:5-8). John sends greetings to the seven major Christian communities (the churches) of Asia. The greeting is also extended in the name of Jesus, faithful witness and firstborn of the dead. Jesus is identified as ruler of the kings of the earth. It is through the death of Jesus that the new kingdom has been brought into existence. Jesus is coming and all will see him. His sisters and brothers will be raised through him, conquering sin and death, triumphing over persecution and unbelief. The Lord is the beginning and the end, just as the Greek letters Alpha and Omega represent the beginning and end of the alphabet. (The Christian scriptures were written in Greek, making this a relevant note.) God’s life-giving power now operates in the world through Jesus, the Christ.

On this feast of Christ the King, we leave the Gospel of Matthew and instead hear from the Gospel of John (Jn 18:33b-37). Jesus stands as a prisoner in front of the Roman governor of Palestine, a man named Pilate. Pilate was responsible for keeping the territory free of revolutionaries and imposing Roman law. He asked the leaders of the Jewish court why they had brought Jesus to him for judgement. They responded that they could not legally condemn him to death.

Pilate is not interested in religious arguments between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. Their reason for the death penalty was blasphemy – the claim to be God. However, the most important issue for Pilate is whether this man standing before him has committed treason by claiming to be a king. Only Caesar in Rome gets that title. Anyone else will be executed. So Pilate asks Jesus directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He is expecting a simple Yes or No, but Jesus instead asks Pilate a question, essentially, why are you asking me this? If Pilate is interested in Jesus’ teaching, the conversation has potential. If not, then other issues arise. Pilate makes clear that he is not asking because he has heard of Jesus and his teaching and wants to know more. What he wants to know is: “What have you done” that the authorities of your country have turned you over to their enemies for execution?

Jesus does not answer the way Pilate expects. He explains, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” He points out that if he were a king in the worldly sense, he would not be standing there alone. Others would be fighting for him. But his kingdom is elsewhere. Pilate takes this answer as a statement that Jesus is claiming to be a king and asks for confirmation of that interpretation. Legally it matters. “Then you are a king?” But Jesus still refuses to claim an earthly kingdom. “You say I am a king.” He doesn’t deny being a king, but he is king in a very different way. He explains that his mission is to present the truth of God’s love for humans. Any who accept that truth will be members of his kingdom. God’s gift to humanity, the self-giving love leading to God’s becoming one of us, is the source and power of this kingdom. Those who belong to the truth, listen to Jesus.

Here’s a person who really is King of Everything! Do I listen to his voice? Do I hear the truth of God’s love and the Kingdom of Love? When he comes, will I be ready?

Today let’s not get bogged down in worries about how we are doing in following our Lord. Let’s take some time and simply celebrate the wonder of this gift from our Father. He loves us so totally that he became one of us. Jesus brings this love to each one of us each day of our lives and with every breath of our bodies. Long live Christ, the King of the Universe!

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Posted by on Nov 14, 2021

The End Draws Near

The End Draws Near

There is a saying, “All good things come to an end.” In our daily lives, we experience this again and again. But sometimes, the end turns out to be a transition to something better. Sometimes, it’s just the end of a cycle and things begin anew.

This is the case with the readings for the Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, the next to the last Sunday of the Church year. We have traveled through the life of Jesus, from the time shortly before his birth through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. We have heard the stories he told and met the people he met along his way from Galilee to Jerusalem during the three years of his public ministry. Now the end of the cycle draws near and we hear from both Hebrew and Christian scriptures of what will happen in the final days of salvation history. What will happen at the end of time?

The Book of Daniel tells the story of the Hebrew people during their time of exile in Babylon, but it was not written during that time. It was written much later and is an example of apocalyptic literature – literature that deals with end times. This type of literature often arises during times of persecution and suffering. The story of Daniel, a prophet, was probably written during the time the Jews were being persecuted under the reign of King Antiochus IV, just over 150 years before the birth of Jesus. The prophet hears and proclaims the word of the Lord. “At that time there shall arise Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people.” Michael is an archangel, the one who is God’s defender of the people. Michael protects the good people during a time of great distress. These people escape and will shine brightly, leading the multitudes to justice and eternal life. (Dn 12:1-3) It is noteworthy that by this time in Jewish history, the idea of life after death is seen as a reality for the righteous. It was an idea still being debated during Jesus’ lifetime, but it was accepted by large numbers of people and their leaders.

Stones Thrown to the Ground        by Roman Soldiers

Jesus was familiar with the apocalyptic literature of his people and spoke of the coming end of time during his final days in Jerusalem. The Romans were known to tolerate no dissent and no rebellions among the people they governed. Yet there was a continual undercurrent of discontent among the Jews and an absolute refusal to tolerate worship of the gods of other peoples. The coming of a Messiah to overthrow the foreign conquerors and re-establish a Jewish kingdom was eagerly anticipated. People wondered whether Jesus might be that hero and welcomed him to Jerusalem with all the fanfare they would give to a conquering hero returning home. Jesus knew that military might was not the way the kingdom of God was going to come to the world. He continually reminded his followers that this was not the path he would take. One day, after teaching in the temple, someone commented on the size of the stones that formed the building. Jesus responded that the stones would soon be demolished and not one left upon the other. (Around the time this gospel was written, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans following a rebellion by a group of Jews known as Zealots. The people had  been scattered into exile.)

Later that day, Jesus spoke with his friends and warned them that hard times were coming. They personally would suffer because of their loyalty to him. The entire nation would suffer because many others would come later and try to overthrow the Romans. Many would claim to be the long-awaited Messiah, but they would be false prophets and false messiahs. All would suffer as a result.

It is at this point that our reading today picks up (Mk 13:24-32). Jesus speaks of the last days of the world and his return to gather the faithful to the kingdom. He speaks of himself as the Son of Man, a title from the book of Daniel used to name and describe the Messiah.

No one knows when that last day and the return of the Son of Man will occur. Even the Son does not know. But all are to live their lives prepared for that last day to arrive. We are all to keep our eyes open and notice the signs of the times, just as we notice the changing of the seasons

It’s been a long time since these prophecies were first spoken. Many generations have passed, and likely many more will come and go before the end of the world. But the sacrifice made by our High Priest, Jesus, does not ever need to be offered again, according to the author of Hebrews (10:11-14, 18). The reconciliation between God and all of creation has been accomplished. No matter what happens, a new age has dawned. Salvation has come.

We sing with the psalmist, “You are my inheritance, O Lord! … my heart is glad and my soul rejoices … You will show me the path to life … the delights at your right hand forever.” (Ps 16)

Our liturgical year is drawing to a close. The end of days has not yet come. We face many difficulties, misunderstandings, deliberate lies, political divisions, pandemics, and other trials in our daily lives. But this is really nothing new. It has happened again and again in history. May we cling to the promises of our Lord and live in the way he taught us, being peace-makers and healers of division in our world. Very soon we begin a new year as a community. Let us take the remaining days of this year to celebrate  the protection and love of our God and prepare for the coming of the Lord into our lives today and in the days to come.

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Posted by on Oct 31, 2021

Hear, O Israel! A Call Ever Ancient and Ever New

Hear, O Israel! A Call Ever Ancient and Ever New

The ancient world was home to many peoples and traditions. Like peoples today, questions arose in these cultures about how things came to be the way they are. Why does the sun shine only during the day? Why do the seasons change? Why do people do bad things sometimes? Why do they ever do good things? What will happen if nothing changes?

Cultures throughout the world and throughout history have struggled with these types of questions and have developed their own explanations of how things came to be and what is possible. In the ancient world, most peoples explained the physical world they saw around them and the events in their world with stories of gods – supernatural, immortal beings who were responsible for the creation of the world and the major events that affected the lives of humans. Is there a drought? It’s because the god of rain has been offended. Is there too much rain? Might be the same reason. Are we hoping for a good harvest? Then pray to the god of the harvest and offer a sacrifice of something that god likes.

There were many cultures and all had their own gods, with their own names. Yet as people from these cultures met, traded goods, and sometimes fought with each other, they noticed that many of their gods were the same as in the other culture. They realized some of these might actually be the same god, but with different names. It didn’t bother them. Sometimes they welcomed a new deity into their own religious beliefs, especially if that new one offered something new of value to them. Only when one people was conquered by another and the new one demanded that everyone worship the conquering people’s deities did issues arise. Generally, there was simply a sense that gods were active in particular areas and not in others. This was why Abram was surprised to find God present in all the lands he visited during his lifetime. Abram and his family lived in many different lands, yet God was present in all of them.

The Israelites differed from the people of surrounding countries and even of the land of Canaan in which they lived. They believed in a single deity. This deity was not like humans, with wives and children and battles with rival deities. Theirs was one God. Period. End of conversation.

The first reading for the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time reminds us of this unique perspective of the Hebrew people and its formulation. Moses has brought the tablets of the Law down from Mt. Sinai to the people. God has offered a contract, an agreement, a holy covenant to them. God will be their God and they will be His people. He is Lord (ruler) of all. He can command and they will obey. In return, He will protect them and give them rich harvests and security in the lands they inhabit. (Dt 6:2-6)

Moses speaks powerful words, words that have echoed through the centuries and are recited as part of both morning and evening prayer by faithful Jews. They are even worn in special garments as a reminder. “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!” This proclamation is known as the Shema. It is known and recited by Jews around the world and throughout history. What follows this first bold statement is a summation of the covenant responsibilities of the people: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and strength. This is the first and fundamental requirement of the Law and the Covenant.

The Psalmist sings with love and joy of this relationship with the LORD (Ps 18:2-4, 47, 51). “I love you, Lord, my strength.” He speaks of the LORD as a rock, a fortress, a shield, a stronghold. He praises the LORD for being a savior and bringing victory to the anointed king of the nation.

As a good Jew, Jesus also knew and recited the Shema.

After he entered the city of Jerusalem, he began going to the temple daily and teaching there. The priests, scribes, and elders of the temple noticed his activities and began to speak with him. His reputation had preceded him and many were likely concerned that he would awaken the hostile interest of the Romans, bringing danger to all. Members of various schools of thought among the Jewish leaders and scholars began to question him in the temple. Jesus answered many questions. Sometimes he asked another question instead of answering them directly, because he knew they were trying to trap him using his own words. Sometimes he told a story as answer to the question.

One day, a scribe heard Jesus talking with a group of Sadducees. He was impressed by Jesus’ answer to their questions and his manner of interacting with them. The scribe, a man who had specialized in study of the Law, asked Jesus a simple question (Mk 12:28b-34). “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus responded by reciting the Shema. “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!” Jesus recited the entire verse. Then he added a second commandment, taken from the book of Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The scribe complimented Jesus on his response. “Excellent, Teacher! You are right…” He noted that loving one’s neighbor was much more important in pleasing God than offering many sacrifices. Jesus saw that this scribe was a man of great insight, not focused on the letter of the law so much as on the implications of what it meant. Jesus complimented him in return, “You are not far from the reign of God.” These words echo the belief that reciting the Shema and making its words the fundamental basis of one’s life is really receiving the kingdom of Heaven (of God).

Jesus spoke as one with authority. The author of Hebrews (Heb 7:23-28) describes him as the one whose priesthood is not based on being a descendant of Jacob’s son Levi but rather on an eternal priesthood stemming from the earlier promise God made to Melchizedek, a promise of eternal priesthood. This new high priest, Jesus, is not a descendant of Levi, but as high priest he brings the ancient Levitical priesthood to a close, offering himself to bring reconciliation between God and humanity. He is the son who has been made perfect forever.

You and I are not expected to be perfect. We will never be perfect. However, we too are called to remember the two great commandments. “Hear, O Israel…” We are children of Abraham through our adoption as sisters and brothers of Jesus. God is One. There is no other. We are to love God with all our being and our neighbors near and far as ourselves. These commands are to be written in our hearts and minds and entire being.

How am I doing with that? Am I expecting God to act like I would act when dealing with the challenges and frustrations I face in daily living? Or am I taking time to remember instead that I am to try to love as God loves in response to those challenges? Do I take time to pray each morning? Do I remember to chat with God during the day? Do I say thank you at the end of the day?

Hear, O Israel … and Kathy too!

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Posted by on Oct 10, 2021

Word and Wisdom – The Depths of the Heart

Word and Wisdom – The Depths of the Heart

Suppose God came to you and instructed you to ask for one gift. What gift would you request? You could have anything at all. Lands, power, wealth, recognition, admiration, skill, fame… What would you request?

Solomon, one of the ancient kings of Israel, was confronted with just this dilemma. His response was to request the gift of wisdom and it was granted to him. He has come down in history and tradition as Solomon the Wise.

The author of the book of Wisdom was writing about 100 years before Jesus was born. As is common in Scripture, the author’s words are ascribed to a well-known and respected figure from the past. In the reading today, the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the figure in question is Solomon. Solomon is praising Wisdom and begins with the story of how Wisdom came to him (Wis 7:7-11).

Solomon declares, “I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded and the spirit of wisdom came to me.” Solomon could have had greater riches, more lands to govern, heaps and heaps of gold and jewels, but he begged for wisdom. And his request was granted. He was not disappointed, nor did he regret his choice. He tells us, “… the splendor of her never yields to sleep.” Wisdom opens the door to appreciation of countless riches that might otherwise be completely overlooked.

Wisdom is personified as a feminine figure in Jewish tradition and is an attribute of God. Wisdom dwells in the heart of women and men. For Jews of this time, the heart was the center of a person, the very core of one’s being. This is where decisions are made and the place from which actions follow. Wisdom is not based in the head. Reason on its own doesn’t lead to wisdom. Wisdom is born from the heart.

The Psalmist asks, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” (Ps 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17) This isn’t a request to have everything go well as a sign of the Lord’s favor. The very next statement is, “Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants!” Clearly, things have not always gone well. Yet hope remains and the psalmist asks the Lord to give what might seem a strange gift, “Make us glad, for the days when you afflicted us, for the years when we saw evil.” How can this be? How does this make sense?

One thing I have noticed in my life is that when all is going well, I don’t learn as much about loving, forgiving, and depending on God as when things have been harder. It’s easy to tell others how to live and what they should do when one has never walked in the same shoes, let alone shoes a couple of sizes smaller and tighter. But once having gone through tough times, it’s much easier to react with compassion to the suffering of others.

God’s work shines through our lives, especially if we keep our eyes open to see it. As the Lord is present and our eyes are open to see, we can notice and rejoice in the gifts received. In times of trouble, we can grow in wisdom if we are open to see.

For the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 4:12-13), the same divine wisdom is described as the word of God, which is living and has an effect, reflecting the inmost thoughts of the heart. Again, the heart is the seat of our humanity. The word is alive and active and it comes from God. Nothing can hide from the word of God. The reading is short, but very powerful.

So how are we called to live? What is necessary to “inherit eternal life?” The young man in today’s Gospel runs up to Jesus and respectfully asks just this question (Mk 10:17-30). Jesus reminds him of the Law that has come down through the ages from Moses. We refer to this particular part of the law as the Ten Commandments. The young man is a bit puzzled. “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Jesus can see his goodness and loves this about him. So he offers him one last challenge, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor… then come, follow me.” This the young man could not do. He had many possessions and they held him bound. Jesus watched sadly as the young man walked away.

How tightly do things hold us bound? Jesus speaks of entering the Kingdom of God as being as hard for the rich as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. This was a reference to a very small gate into the city of Jerusalem. Camels were too tall to enter through the gate without getting on their knees and essentially crawling through. The followers of Jesus rightly noted that such conditions for entry to the Kingdom were pretty much impossible to meet. Jesus agreed that in human terms it would be impossible. This is the reason that God’s help is necessary and wisdom springs from the heart. To the extent that we can hold on to things lightly, letting them go and sharing them whenever the need arises, we can become more like generous children and able to see the Kingdom as it is present around us.

Through the eyes of the heart and wisdom, we approach the Kingdom. How do we, you and I, open our eyes, our hearts, and our hands to allow Wisdom, the Word of God, to fill our being and overflow into our world today?

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Posted by on Oct 3, 2021

In God’s Image and Equal

In God’s Image and Equal

The readings from the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time are frequently misunderstood or misinterpreted. They deal with the relationship between men and women, as well as the question of marriage and divorce. Little, unimportant topics, to be sure…

Let’s take a look at them in their context and see what they are really saying to us.

The first reading is from the second chapter of Genesis. It’s from the second creation story, which addresses different questions than does the first. In the first creation story, everything comes into being in response to God’s word of command, with humans being formed by God in God’s own image – male and female they were created from the start. They represent the culmination of creation, after which God rests.

The order and manner of creation differs in the second story. In the second story, God made the earth and the heavens, but there was no grass nor were there shrubs, because there had been no rain and there were no humans to till the soil. In this story, God takes the clay mud that is found beside a stream welling up out of the earth. From this mud, God forms a man. The Hebrew words include a bit of a pun. “Man” is adam and “mud” is adama. Into this individual, God breathes some of God’s own breath of life and the adam becomes a living person.

After creating the Adam, God planted a garden in a fertile plain (eden) and placed the Adam there. Plants, trees, and all sorts of wonderful things grew in the garden and the Adam was free to eat of them. The Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil also grew in the heart of the garden, and of them it was forbidden to eat.

The Lord God realized that the Adam would be lonesome without a companion, so other creatures were created. This is where our reading today picks up (Gen 2:18-24). Many animals were created, and all were given names by the Adam. But none of them was a suitable companion to him. He remained unique and lonely.

So the Lord made him sleep deeply. While he slept, the Lord took a rib from his side and formed it into another person, this one female. It is absolutely significant that the woman was formed from the side of the adam. If she had been formed from his head, it would mean she was superior to him. If from his feet, she would be inferior to him. But from his side, she was his equal.

When Adam awoke, the Lord brought the new being to him. Adam rejoiced because at last, here was a being that would be his equal and partner. He gave her a name too, again a pun. She would be known as Ishsha (woman) because she had been taken from Ishah (her man or her husband). We know her as Eve. Together they would become one unit, one body, and form new families of humans.

Psalm 128 reminds us of the great gift of husbands and wives living together in peace and raising their families. This is a great blessing bestowed on those who walk in the ways of the Lord. The text includes the notion of fear of the Lord. That doesn’t mean fear in the sense of being afraid of the Lord or of being punished for angering the Lord. Fear in this sense is more a question of the awe that comes from something too wonderful to comprehend or take for granted.

During the time of Jesus, there was a controversy in the Jewish community over whether divorce was lawful. Mosaic law allowed a man to divorce his wife, but the grounds for divorce varied, depending on which group of scholars was looking at the question. A member of one of these groups, a Pharisee, asked Jesus his opinion on the topic (Mk 10:2-16). By this time in history, women had very few rights. A man could divorce his wife. A woman had no such option. If she were divorced by her husband, she was returned to her family in disgrace and most likely would never again be married. Her status in society was completely ruined. Who would take a “used woman” for a wife? Without a man, a woman had no social standing and no rights.

Jesus goes back to before Moses for his response. He reminds his listeners that God created humans as men and women and intended them to become one unit, one body. No other human being should come between them.

In saying this, Jesus sort of side-stepped the issue raised by the Pharisee in public. However, his disciples were not satisfied and questioned him later in private. With them, he was much more direct. Divorcing a spouse and marrying another means committing adultery against that spouse. Very importantly here, Jesus places women on an equal footing with the men on this question. He assumes that a woman might also divorce her husband. The caveat is that if she remarries, she too is committing adultery against her former husband!

This is a hard thing. It’s very important today to remember that a wedding ceremony does not necessarily mean a couple are actually married in the deeper sense of becoming a creative, blessing, unit. That’s why the Church is so careful about marriages and the process for entering into a sacramental union. In a true marriage, there is a recognition that God is present in the relationship and the couple minister the presence of God to each other. Shot-gun marriages are not sacramental. Marriage just because a woman is pregnant is often not free enough to qualify. Marriage because a bride-price or dowry has been exchanged already, if one or the other partner is unwilling to enter the union, would not qualify. A marriage in which there is violence or a partner under the influence of drugs or alcohol does not qualify. When these circumstances can be identified, it is ruled that there was no marriage in the first place and the individuals are both free to marry at a later time.

Our understanding of marriage has grown and deepened through the centuries, but many challenges still arise for any couple who commit to living together as a unit, with a bond created by God. Fortunately, we have a much better understanding of human psychology today and a willingness to look deeper at the underpinnings of relationships among men and women of good will.

The Gospel reading continues with a new topic as well – children. People brought their children to Jesus to be blessed. The grown-ups thought that was not OK. Children were to be seen and not heard. They had no real rights and should not be bothering the master. But Jesus thought differently. Jesus welcomed the children and reproached those who tried to keep them away. Children are the model for all who want to enter the Kingdom of God. All must approach God with the openness and joy of a child.

In fact, according to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 2:9-11), all who are brought to glory through the leadership of Jesus are children of the Father. Jesus, “lower than the angels” for a brief time, became perfect through suffering, and brought humans with him back to the Father. Jesus calls all of us brothers and sisters.

Created in God’s image and equal, what is our response? How do we react to one another? Whose love do we respect and support? How do we reach out to those whose lives and ways of understanding are different than ours? Are we open to hear of the ways God’s love shines in the lives of non-binary people? Do we respect people of other cultures whose traditions differ from ours? How do we model loving relationships among our peers and with our children and grandchildren?

In October we are reminded to Respect Life. Life in its many stages and forms. Life before and after birth. From womb to tomb. May we accept the challenges of supporting women, children, immigrants, refugees, old people and young people, binary people and non-binary people, and all those in-between.

We are created in God’s image and we are all equal in God’s sight.

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