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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 Sep 11, 2022

God’s Justice Is Extravagant Mercy

God’s Justice Is Extravagant Mercy

“I will rise and go to my father.” (Lk 15:18)

Have you ever had the experience of doing something that you know was wrong and were hoping no one would notice? Perhaps you were embarrassed about it. Perhaps you were afraid of punishment. Perhaps you feared that what you had done could never be forgiven. Maybe you were a child and hid in a closet or out in the back yard for as long as you could, rather than face the parent whose anger or disappointment you feared. Maybe you simply didn’t respond to the letter or phone calls of the friend whom you had hurt.

Rejoice. You’re not alone. I think we all have had this kind of experience at least once in our lives. The peoples of the Bible had these kinds of experiences too. You are not alone, and you don’t have to stay in that frightened, embarrassed place forever.

Moses and the Israelites

Shortly after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses received the Law from the Lord on Mt. Sinai and presented it to his people. Then Moses was called again to the mountain of the Lord. The book of Exodus devotes many chapters to the encounters of Moses with the Lord and the reception of the Law. This time when he went up the mountain, he again disappeared into the cloud at the top and did not return for many, many days – forty days in all! The people waiting at the foot of the mountain became afraid. What had happened to their leader, the one who faced Pharaoh, the one who led them across the Red Sea and through the desert? Had he died? They believed that anyone who saw the face of the Lord would die. Who would be their leader now? Who would be their representative to God? They had welcomed the proclamation of the Law from Moses and offered sacrifice to confirm their agreement to it before he left again. Why was he gone so long? Maybe what they needed was a god they could see and touch, like the ones of the peoples among whom they lived.

Aaron, brother of Moses, was approached by a group of them, asking him to help them find a god whom they could worship and who would protect them. Not knowing what had happened to his brother, Aaron ordered them to bring gold jewelry and coins. He melted them down and formed a calf from the gold. Calves were worshiped by many of the surrounding peoples as representations of their gods. The people rejoiced and began to worship the golden calf.

Up on the mountain, the Lord noticed what was happening and was not amused. “Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved.” (Ex 32:7-11, 13-14) The Lord was angry and proposed to Moses that he would simply destroy them all, then make a new nation for himself from the descendants of Moses. This would have been the right and just thing for a monarch or a god to do, according to the experience and traditions of the nations at that time, so that is the response ascribed to the Lord in this account.

However, Moses boldly spoke up and presented a different option, imploring, “Why, O Lord, should your wrath blaze up against your own people… Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” and the promise made to them. With this reminder, “the Lord relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.”

Did that settle the issue forever? No. There was much more to the story, as Moses descended from the mountain, broke the tablets on which the Lord had written the Law, punished the people who had rebelled, and again returned to the mountain top for another forty days, so the tablets could again be inscribed with the Law. The relationship between the Israelites and God continued to be rocky through the centuries, but God always remained merciful. There were times when things went very badly for Israel and they interpreted the suffering that came to them as punishment for having offended God. But when once again peace returned and all was well, they rejoiced in the mercy of their God, who never left them.

The Psalms often speak of the loving mercy of God, asking God to wipe out our offenses, cleanse us of sin, and open our mouths to proclaim his praise. “A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” (Ps 51)

St. Paul’s Experience

St. Paul also experienced mercy from the Lord. Paul was the Roman name of a pharisee named Saul who grew up in Tarsus. Tarsus was a Roman city in an area northwest of Syria. Saul was a Roman citizen because of his birth in Tarsus, but he was also a Jew. He had studied in Jerusalem and was greatly distressed by the teachings of Jesus’ disciples after the resurrection. When the authorities began to arrest Christians, Saul was totally in favor of wiping out this new, heretical group. In fact, he was a witness to the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Those who were throwing the rocks at Stephen laid their cloaks at Saul’s feet for safekeeping as he looked on with approval.

Later, as the Christian community dispersed to other cities in the empire, Saul followed after them to Damascus, planning to arrest them, return them to Jerusalem, and witness their deaths. But the Lord had other plans for him.

On the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Saul. Saul was totally blown away by the appearance of Jesus. Jesus instructed him to continue his journey to Damascus. There he met members of the Christian community and became one of them. Thus began his long journey as a follower of Jesus and apostle to the Gentiles.

Many years after his conversion, Paul wrote to Timothy, one of the men who had been converted by Paul’s teachings and had become a companion on some of his missionary journeys. (1 Tim 1:12-17) Paul spoke of his experience of having received mercy from the Lord, despite his earlier attempts to wipe out Jesus’ followers. “I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.” It was through the mercy of God that Paul found a new meaning and way in life. A new kind of justice.

Jesus’ Stories of Forgiveness

Jesus embodied God’s approach to sinners. Sinners were anyone who did not live by Jewish Law and customs. As in any society, there are always folks who skirt the rules or refuse to follow them. Most people avoided contact with public sinners – tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves, and so forth. But Jesus went out of his way to speak with them. This brought constant criticism from the religious authorities. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Eating with someone who was a sinner, who was ritually unclean, made a person also ritually unclean. It was a big deal.

In response to the criticism, Jesus told three stories. (Lk 15:1-32) The first was about a shepherd who had one hundred sheep. One of them got lost. The shepherd left the ninety-nine and went in search of the missing one. When he found it, he returned to the rest of the flock and called his friends to celebrate with him because he had found the missing sheep. Jesus told his audience that in heaven, there will be much greater joy over the repentance of a sinner than over those who have always lived righteously. Like his listeners, we might wonder about the wisdom of leaving ninety-nine sheep to fend for themselves. In practical terms, unless others were watching out for the flock, the rest of the sheep would probably be gone by the time the shepherd returned with the stray. But Jesus takes it for granted that a true shepherd would care about the missing one too.

Another example of God’s extravagance is that of the woman who had ten coins. When she lost one, she lit a lamp and cleaned the house carefully, looking for the coin. When she found it, she called her friends and neighbors to celebrate with her because the coin had been found. Having recently found a coin that I had dropped and been unable to find for several days, I can appreciate her delight. For me the coin was not a huge issue, but I had been wondering where it had managed to hide when I dropped it. For her, the coin was much more important. Important enough to burn expensive oil in the effort to find it. Jesus explained again that the angels rejoice when each sinner repents. The cost doesn’t matter to God and the angels rejoice.

The final story is one we often know as that of the Prodigal Son. It might also be called the story of the Extravagantly Merciful, Welcoming Father. A son requests his share of the family wealth, takes the money and spends it all on wild living. Then he finds himself without resources in a foreign land as drought and famine rage. Eventually he comes to his senses and declares, “I will rise and go to my father…” The son intends to ask for a job as a servant in the household, but his father, seeing him coming down the road, runs out to welcome him. He treats him as a much-loved son and restores his position in the household. A great celebration then begins, with no expense spared, to welcome the son back to the family.

The brother who had remained with his father is very hurt and angry at the way his father treats the one who had gone away and wasted the family resources. He refuses to enter the house and join the celebration, considering his father’s actions to be unfair. But the father of both young men explains, “now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again.”

Like the Extravagantly Merciful, Welcoming Father in the story, we are loved and welcomed by our God, who is a parent to us. Sometimes we really make wrong choices. Sometimes we deliberately do what we know is wrong. Sometimes we don’t do what we know we should do. Like the Israelites in the desert, or Saul on the road to Damascus, or the young man who went off and spent his share of the family money, our actions can be very wrong. Yet God does not punish us. God doesn’t interfere with our free choice to turn away. But God always wants us to return, not to be afraid to come back. The circle of love is always open to receive us again. We just have to turn back and accept the big hug that God wants to give us. The justice of God is not something to be feared. The justice of God is extravagant mercy and love. Today, tomorrow, and always.

Thanks be to God!

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

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Posted by on Sep 4, 2022

As Easy as Falling Off a Log?

As Easy as Falling Off a Log?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by on Aug 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 21, 2022

Workouts in God’s Gym

Workouts in God’s Gym

In towns and cities around the world today, we find spaces dedicated to the development of physical strength and endurance. With so much of the labor in our contemporary society being done with minimal physical exertion, people do not develop the same degree of physical strength as the majority even of children did in the past. For example, those who manually milk cows twice a day will typically have greater hand strength than those whose task it is to attach the cow to the milking machine and let the machine do the work, to say nothing of those who pick up a jug of milk at the store on the way home from work at a desk job. Those who must grind the corn to make the tortillas for their family’s meals will typically be stronger than those who may simply open a bag of corn bread mix and stir it into muffins or who buy a bag of tortillas at the grocery store.

Both men and women go to gyms and spas to work out and/or relax. There are machines to exercise specific muscles and others to promote general fitness. Pools for swimming, hot tubs and saunas for relaxing, free weights for lifting, and stationary bicycles are all features of these locations. For those who want to go a step further, there are classes and personal trainers to guide them to a higher level of performance.

For children, there are other options to develop strength and coordination. Schools have times for playing outside. Older grade children have physical education periods or games classes. There are the after-school sports as well: swimming, soccer, football, basketball, baseball, fencing, water polo, and so forth. Those not inclined to sports may sign up for dance classes or other physical activities, including riding their bikes or skating.

We take for granted that these activities will not necessarily be easy or non-tiring, especially if there is a coach involved, who will challenge participants to move past their normal comfort level and increase their strength.

With this need for physical activity and training in mind, the words of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews take on a different sense than if they are taken at face value. (Heb 12:5-7,11-13) At face value, it sounds as if the Lord is a hard task master, quick to punish harshly: “… those whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.”

Part of the challenge we face in understanding this teaching is our tendency to use the word discipline to refer to punishment. I think this is an unwise practice, though it is very widespread. People are much less likely to object to disciplining a child than to punishing the child. It’s generally the same action, but discipline sounds more positive, less harsh, so we use that term.

In this reading, the word translated as discipline is also used to mean “training,” “correction,” and “guidance.” We are the children of the Lord, sisters and brothers of Jesus, who passed through a time of tremendous trial and suffering on his return journey to the Father. We too are called to learn how to be God’s children, following the model of Jesus. The Father treats us as a loving parent would, guiding and correcting our actions, so we learn better how to make right choices and live as channels of divine love in the world. In many ways, it’s like the work of a personal trainer or coach, helping us keep going and developing increased strength at each step along the way.

Now does this mean God gets mad and punishes us, as we human parents all too often do with our own children? No. God does not punish us or strike out in anger against us. God is love. All God has to offer is love and, as a result of that, the freedom to respond in love or not. When we choose not to respond in love to the people and events we encounter, we experience the consequences of our decisions. God does not jump in and put up shields to stop the response of those we have harmed or failed to help. They are also children of God, loved equally and equally free to respond with love or not. We experience the consequences of our behavior. With any luck at all, we learn better ways to respond.

Like any parent, sometimes I think God chuckles at our insistence on doing things our own way and sometimes God cries because we have hurt others or have ourselves been hurt because of our own actions. But through it all, God is there, like a good parent, coach, or trainer, helping us to meet the challenges we face and grow stronger in love and wisdom. God encourages us to hold on and keep trying. Every time we goof up and make a mess of things, God is there to provide the strength needed to try again and again.

Does God only care about a few human beings, or only those from certain cultures or genetic lines, or religions? Once again, the answer is a resounding “NO!” Isaiah speaks again and again of the fact that the God of Israel is truly Lord of all peoples on earth. (Is 66:18-21) In symbolic language, Isaiah describes the gathering of peoples from all the known world, led by witnesses of the Lord’s glory, who proclaim that glory among the nations. Peoples from all the nations will travel to the Lord’s holy mountain, Jerusalem, as an offering to the Lord. As the Israelites carried their offerings to the temple in clean, purified vessels, the animals who carry the travelers are like purified vessels. All come as offering to the Lord and they become God’s family in all senses of the word. Some will even be selected to serve as priests and Levites (assistants to the priests in the temple), roles historically limited to direct descendants of Aaron and Levi.

The circle of those who train in God’s gym or grow as God’s children increases to include all peoples of the world.

“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” How exclusive is the Kingdom? How hard will it be to be saved? Is there hope for us? St. Luke tells us Jesus addressed this question from someone he met on the way to Jerusalem. (Lk 13:22-30) “Strive to enter through the narrow gate…” Jesus replies to the questioner. It’s not easy to be a child of God. It takes practice and persistence to learn God’s ways. Like athletes in a race, it takes conscious effort and endurance to get successfully to the end of the race. Simply calling oneself a friend of Jesus is not enough. Those who reach and enter through the narrow gate will be those who act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God (as we hear elsewhere from the prophet Micah 6:8). Those who enter will come from all the nations of the earth. Those with the least glory and honor in the eyes of the world, as measured by wealth and status, will be found in numbers among those entering through the narrow gate.

The journey to God’s kingdom is not easy. It is not limited to only a few. Indeed, all are welcome. But it is not guaranteed that all will be ready to enter the gate. There is much to learn as we go through life. Many lessons we must learn. Sometimes we learn easily. Sometimes we’re more hard-headed and it takes longer.

Today let us rejoice that God is a patient parent, a loving coach, who helps us grow to be true children of love – children whose lives are such that the life of God can pour through to others in our world. In those areas we find difficult, may we receive the grace to open our eyes and see the better way God has for us to open to love and share it. When we get discouraged, may we hear the Lord speaking to us through the voices of family, friends, and companions on the way. Then may we again take heart as we move forward step by step. When our hearts freeze and refuse to love, may we experience the gentle touch of the Lord’s hand, warming our heart so we can again embrace each other and our loving, divine parent: our God.

Welcome to God’s Gym. Enjoy your workout!

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

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Posted by on Aug 14, 2022

Setting the Earth on Fire

Setting the Earth on Fire

It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere – a time of increased risk of wildfires and the destruction they can bring. Two years ago, we experienced the power of fire firsthand, as the CZU complex fire swept through the forests outside Santa Cruz, destroying the homes of friends and the businesses of many, as well as delaying the start of school. Beginning with a huge dry-lightning storm on Aug 16, 2020, the fires burned out of control for over a month, before they were contained. Shortly before Christmas, Cal Fire believed the fires were completely out, but actually, they continued to burn deep underground in the redwood forests into 2021. September 9, 2020, the skies turned red-orange in the daytime here on the coast and the day remained dark, as ash fell from the skies. We rejoiced the next day when the fog came in and our skies around Monterey Bay were washed clean. The fog continued to wash the air for the next few days and the darkness did not return here, but other areas were not so fortunate. The smoky tinge in the skies continued for weeks, even here.

Blessedly, we have not had such devastating fires here on the Central Coast since then, but fires are blazing in other areas throughout the Western states, Canada, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Siberia as I write today. Skies are fiery red-orange. And fire season is far from over.

I am thinking of that experience, looking at the clear sky which nevertheless carries a slight hint of the reddish color that comes from the smoke of fires burning in other areas and reading Jesus’ words, “I have come to set the earth on fire.” (Lk 12:49)

Really? Are you sure that’s a good idea, Lord? People can get hurt! Fire is not a force to mess with …

Jesus speaks these words about setting the earth on fire to his disciples. A large crowd has gathered and in the past two weeks we’ve been hearing Jesus as he teaches the crowds about the importance of holding lightly to things, trusting God to provide for their needs. He has spoken very clearly to his closer followers, those who were his disciples, about the importance of servants being prepared for the return of their master. When Peter asks Jesus whether these teachings apply to all or just to his closest followers, Jesus assures him that it applies to all, but most especially to those entrusted with more responsibility – the servant placed in charge of the master’s household.

It is at this very point that Jesus makes his astounding statement – “I have come to light a fire on the earth … Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? I assure you, the contrary is true; I have come for division.”

The proclamation of the Kingdom of God is not something that is gentle and unchallenging. The message Jesus brings is not all sweetness and light. It’s not for the faint of heart or those unwilling to risk drawing negative attention to themselves.

Jesus knows that he himself runs a great risk of falling afoul of the authorities and of being punished. He is afraid of what is ahead for him: “I have a baptism to receive. What anguish I feel till it is over!” He is not unaware of the fate of prophets.

Yet he persists. He speaks the words of the Father. He calls the world to justice, to care for the weak and powerless, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, share of the abundance of the world among all the peoples, regardless of their “worthiness” to share in it. He even takes his message to the seat of power in his land: Jerusalem and the leaders there.

Setting the earth on fire … so new life will spring forth for all.

The prophet Jeremiah ran into trouble too when he spoke the Lord’s words. Jerusalem was facing destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. The Lord instructed him to tell the soldiers and the king to surrender rather than try to fight off the empire. Those who were determined to fight spoke against him to the king: “Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he is demoralizing the soldiers …” (Jer 38: 4-6,8-10) When King Zedekiah threw up his hands and let them have their way, Jeremiah was lowered into a mostly dried up cistern – a well – and left there in the mud to die. He was rescued when one of the king’s trusted advisors reported what had happened to Jeremiah. The king then sent the man with three others to rescue Jeremiah from the cistern.

Zedekiah did not ultimately take Jeremiah’s advice. He and his troops were badly defeated. His family was killed and he was taken away as a prisoner. Most of the people were also killed or taken away as captives. The few who remained did not unite and work together. They fought each other for power. It was a time of tremendous upheaval. Jeremiah continued to speak the Lord’s words, arguing for peace and cooperation among those who remained, but he was mostly ignored. It was a long time before the Jewish people returned to their homeland from exile in Babylon. But that’s all part of the longer story.

Jeremiah spoke the words he received from the Lord. The words were not received positively. Fire was ignited upon the earth, but not because Jeremiah remained silent. Human voices and actions are needed by the Lord. And humans choose how to respond. All too often they respond with violence and conflict.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews speaks of a “great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before all of us on the journey of faith.  (Heb 12:1-4) This reading follows a long presentation of the history of the Lord’s calling of His people, beginning with the sacrifices of Abel and Cain at the beginning of the human story and continuing with the calling of Abraham and those who followed. Those who came before Jesus did not have his example or the certainty of the resurrection to carry them on their journey of faith. We are blessed to have the model of Jesus and his endurance of the cross and its shame as we face misunderstanding and opposition to the message we carry and the way of life we have chosen. We keep our eyes on Jesus as we live, trusting in the ways of God.

With the Psalmist and all those who have come before us, including Jesus, we pray, “Lord, come to my aid!” (Ps 40) We wait for the Lord, who pulls us out of the cisterns in which we find ourselves, puts a new song of praise into our mouths, and thinks of us, though we are poor and afflicted.  We are blessed by a God who comes to our defense.

Even in the face of the fires kindled by the message of the Lord.

Does this mean we are to fight each other and that divisions among us are OK? Absolutely not! We are called together to work on behalf of those who are denied the basics needed for human dignity – food, clothing, shelter, heath care, education, justice …

As followers of Jesus’ Way, members of the Kingdom of God, the lives we lead, the message we bear, the friends we make along the way, will seldom be “typical” of those of the rich and powerful in our world communities. We will discover that “hard work” and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” are not sufficient or possible for those without basic resources. It’s impossible to use bootstraps to advance upward when one does not even have flip flops!

As Christians, we are called to join our Lord in setting the earth on fire. Make good trouble. Speak out for those whose rights are being trampled. Share resources. Fight for health care for all. Defend women’s rights. And those of our non-binary sisters and brothers. And those who flee violence. And, And, And … so many others! The forgotten ones of our world.

Pray for me and I will pray for you. May we see the Lord in those around us. May our eyes be opened to the ways we put people in boxes or cisterns because we don’t want to hear what they have to tell us of the Lord’s vision for them and for us. May our ears be opened to the cries of God’s little ones who cannot provide for themselves. May our hearts be touched with tenderness when we meet the Lord on the street, or in a jail, or securely hiding behind the gifts of security they have received.

May we have the courage to embrace the fire of Jesus’ message, so new life can spring forth in our dry hearts.

Readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

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Posted by on 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 24, 2022

Asking with the Confidence of a Child

Asking with the Confidence of a Child

A few weeks ago, a neighbor child was out with her father, walking the dog before bedtime. I was out pulling weeds in the front garden as they came by the house. As we were visiting, she noticed the sparkly glass mosaic gems we have in the curb around the front yard. She was entranced by them. “What are they?” “How did they get there?” “Can I have one?”

At the school my children attended, these gems are known as ‘dragon tears,’ so that’s the name I gave her for them too. Did I mention, she was entranced? I told her I had some extras and would bring one to her soon. They went on their way and I finished with the weeds.

The next week, I stopped by their house with a few things to share. Her parents were away, but I was welcomed as always. Later that evening, as I returned home from a walk, I met the children, dog, and sitters. The first thing out of the mouth of the child was, “You didn’t bring the dragon tears!” I had totally forgotten that she was expecting them. I assured her that it was a terrible error on my part and I would certainly get them to her and her sisters.

When I got home, I learned the rest of the story. The group of them had come to the front door and knocked. When I didn’t come right away, they began calling for me. Eventually someone came to the door and explained that I was out walking, so they went on their way too. She was hoping to find me while they were out. It was shortly afterwards that we met on the way.

The readings for this Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time speak of asking and receiving with the confidence of a child. When last we saw Abraham, he was walking down the road towards Sodom with his three guests. (Gen 18: 20-32) As they walked, one of the guests, who turned out to have been the Lord, thinks over whether to share his thoughts with Abraham. Deciding to do that, he shares that he has heard bad things about the behavior of people in Sodom. He’s going there himself to see whether they are true. If they are, he plans to destroy the city.

Abraham is dismayed. His brother and family live in Sodom. So Abraham begins to bargain with the Lord.  “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? What if there were fifty innocent people in the city? … Far be it from you to do such a thing, to make the innocent die with the guilty.” The Lord agrees not to destroy the city if there are fifty innocent people there.

Abraham does not stop at fifty. He persists, asking about forty-five innocents, or forty, or thirty, or twenty, or ten. Each time, the Lord agrees not to destroy the city for the sake of those ten innocent men.

That’s as far as we go this week. Unfortunately for the city of Sodom, there was only one good man and his family in the city. He was warned in advance and left the city with at least some of his family before it was destroyed. But that’s another story for another time. The important thing to note this week is that even the Lord God is willing to listen to requests and change plans when one of his children asks, politely but confidently.

The Psalmist (Ps 138) sings of the Lord’s kindness, hearing “the words of my mouth.” The Lord strengthens us, preserves us from our enemies, exalts the lowly, completes what he has done for us. “On the day I called for your help, you answered me.”

St. Paul (Col 2:12-14) speaks of the death and resurrection of Jesus “obliterating the bond against us,” and removing all barriers between humans and God. This extends to the division between Jews and Gentiles as well. We are now all children of God because of our link and union with God’s Son, Jesus.

St. Luke (11:1-13) tells of the time Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray. This was and is a common thing. Students ask their teachers to show them how to do something. The teacher shares the way they have learned to do it in the best way they’ve found.

The words Jesus gave to his friends sound quite formal, maybe because we’ve heard them so often in formal settings. He begins with a single word in this version, Father.

The word Father sounds very formal in families in which that is not the title used to address the man who is the father of the children. In many families, there are affectionate names used to address this parent. Some of them include Dad, Daddy, Papa, and Pop. The term Jesus used is “abba,” an affectionate name like Papa or Daddy. It indicates the closeness of very small children with their male parent.

So, what do we say to our Papa God? May your name be holy (a power and strength of great wonderfulness). Your kingdom come (may your leadership and rule fill all of creation). Give us each day the food we need (very practical request). Forgive us our sins (we mess up regularly) for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us (uh oh, this is challenging). Do not subject us to the final test (don’t ask more than we can do).

These are very concrete instructions. Not a lot of fancy words. Pretty much covers everything that needs to be said, though.

We might be tempted to think it’s too much to ask. We might not believe that our heavenly Papa cares enough about us to hear our requests. And what if I want or need something more than bread?

Jesus continues with more encouragement to trust. We know that our friends and neighbors might not be willing to help if the time is inconvenient. Jesus reminds us that even in the middle of the night, when all are asleep and getting up to help is totally inconvenient and disruptive, persistent requests that could become even more disruptive will get a response from another human. Someone shouting at the front door is likely to be noticed. He continues, “ask and you will receive; seek and you will find.” Humans give good gifts to their children. God will do no less. He concludes the thought with, “How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

We may not get exactly what we’re asking if it’s something material or if another person is not willing or able to grant our wish or be open to healing in a relationship. But we will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit present and living in our hearts and minds. Ask and you shall receive. Call God Papa, or Dad, or Pop or Father. Whatever affectionate name for a very special parent you would use, because that is who our God is.

Then ask for the blessings of seeing God present in all of creation and in our lives and relationships. Ask for practical things like food for the day, or impractical but wondrous things, like the mosaic gems my little friend is hoping to receive. Ask with the confidence and persistence of a child.

Will things materialize out of nothing? Probably not. Often there’s a basis from which the Lord works to respond. Then again, some things might not be for the glory of God or for your own best spiritual interest, so those requests may be answered differently than you expect. But you might be surprised where and how God’s answers to your requests appear. Sometimes, you might even be the one whose actions make the prayer of another answered.

Now where did I put those dragon tears?

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Posted by on Jun 5, 2022

Filled with the Holy Breath of God – Sharing the Good News

Filled with the Holy Breath of God – Sharing the Good News

Fifty days after the celebration of Passover, Jews celebrate another great festival, Shavuot. Shavuot is a celebration both of the early summer harvest (in more southerly climes) and the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai in the early days of the 40 years the people traveled in the desert following the Exodus and before their entry into Palestine.

The first reading for Pentecost Sunday, fifty days after Easter, describes an event that forever changed the lives of Jesus’ followers. They had been staying together as instructed, spending time at the temple in prayer, and waiting to see what would happen next. It had been a pretty amazing set of weeks since the Resurrection. When would they see Jesus again?

That morning, as they were gathered for prayer together, they heard what sounded like a strong wind blowing. It filled the whole house. Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire that separated and rested on each of them. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”

The Holy Spirit – the holy Breath of God – came to each of these men and women who were close friends and family of Jesus. They experienced the love and joy with which God holds each one of us in this moment of deep union. The Holy Breath of God breathed in them, surrounded them, and set their hearts on fire with love.

Sometimes these experiences of the presence of God are very quiet and not externally obvious to other people. But this was not one of those times. The noise was noticed by people outside the building. A crowd began to gather. There were people in town for the festival of Shavuot from all over the known world. It was one of three annual celebrations that brought visitors to Jerusalem for prayer and celebration every year. But this was something different. What was the noise all about?

Then something even more astounding was noticed. These uneducated Galileans were speaking and each person could understand what was being said. There were no spontaneous translators. There was no need for translators. The words spoken by Jesus’ friends were heard in the language of the people who listened to them in the crowd. What words were they hearing? They were hearing “of the mighty acts of God.”

The reading from Acts for this Sunday stops at this point. But take a little time and read more on your own. You will hear about Peter speaking to the crowd, pointing out that it’s too early in the day for them all to be drunk. What the crowd is hearing is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy about the coming of the promised one. Peter shares the good news of Jesus’ coming as Messiah, of his death and resurrection, of the new life promised to all. Many people believed what Peter told them and asked to become a follower of Jesus too.

There is a story in the early Hebrew Scriptures that is meant to explain how it came to be that there are so many peoples and languages on Earth (Gn 11:1-9). In this story, all humans spoke the same language and could understand each other. But they got too confident in their own ideas and ways. They decided to build a tower to the heavens so they could never be scattered. The Lord saw what they were doing and intervened, making them unable to understand each other’s words. Without a common language, they scattered to all parts of the world. The tower is known as the Tower of Babel.

The events of Pentecost were in direct contrast to what had happened at the Tower of Babel. Now peoples from all over the world understood the words spoken to them. It was not necessary for all of them to become one again. God came to them and met them where they were and loved them as they were. For this to happen at the time of remembrance of the gift of the Law, the Torah, is especially noteworthy. The Torah was/is the guide for living a life pleasing to the Most High. And now, the Holy Breath of the Most High is breathed out into peoples from all over the world, speaking many different languages, and living in many different ways.

All are one in sharing the love of the Father. And all can be different in the gifts and perspectives they bring to the community. God is Father to peoples of many lands. It’s not necessary for all to be identical.

The other readings explore aspects of this reality. There are two options for both the Epistle and the Gospel readings. St. Paul writes to the people of Corinth (1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13) about the variety of gifts given by the Spirit within the community. He notes, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also is Christ.” Regardless of our background, we are all part of the same body and share in the one Breath of God as source of our life.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul contrasts the status of those who live only according to ordinary human ways with those who live in union with and according to the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead. Without the presence of the Spirit, there is no hope for the deeper life and freedom of the adopted children of God. It is the Spirit, the Holy Breath of God, who bears witness to this and makes it possible for us to call God “Abba, Father” (or as we might say it, Dad).

Usually, the Gospel reading follows directly after the second reading, but on Pentecost Sunday, there is another prayer, the Pentecost Sequence, which traditionally has been sung. “Veni  Sancte Spiritus” Come, Holy Spirit, come! With this song we ask the Spirit to come into our lives too, with all the gifts and fruits of faith, hope, love, peace, joy, and richness that a life of faith includes. As we open our hearts to receive these gifts, we grow in faith. Our own individual gifts deepen and we know the joy of being loved by God.

The two options for the Gospel both come from St. John. The first option tells of Jesus’ visit to his friends on the evening of the Resurrection (Jn 20:19-23). After greeting them and showing them his wounded hands and side, he wishes them Peace and tells them he is sending them now as the Father sent him. He breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit (Holy Breath), to bring forgiveness of sin to those whom they meet.

The other option comes from a section of Jesus’ teaching at the Last Supper ( 14:15-16, 23b-26). Jesus promises to ask the Father to send another Advocate to remain with them forever. This Advocate will be the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father in the name (power, authority) of Jesus. When the Advocate comes, he will teach Jesus’ followers everything and remind them of what Jesus has told them.

Again, the Holy Spirit comes to enlighten the minds and hearts of the followers of Jesus. He doesn’t come to make everyone identical. He doesn’t expect everyone to do exactly the same thing or to think exactly the same things. What he will enable is for these many people to share their gifts and talents in love with the rest of God’s people in our world.

We celebrate the time of the Spirit at Pentecost. God lives within us now, breathing life and love into our daily activities. Teaching us new things as new situations and understandings of how creation works come to light, God does not expect us to remain frozen in time at some ancient date. We live and learn of the wonders of creation and of God’s presence in each person.

Come, Holy Breath of God. Fill our lives with your presence and open our eyes to see you in all the wonders of your world and the people with whom we share it.

May this day be filled with joy as you celebrate with your families and communities this great gift.

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Posted by on May 22, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come Holy Spirit!

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Posted by on May 15, 2022

Glory – One Step at a Time

Glory – One Step at a Time

I have long been fascinated by the term “glory.” It’s a word often heard in the Bible, but just what does it mean? What is the Glory of the Lord? What does it mean if something or someone is glorified? Are there different types of glory? Does a phrase like “Give glory to God” mean to offer praise in words like “Praise God” or “Thank Heavens?”  Or does it mean something else?

It’s a word that has many dimensions. Dictionary definitions include abundance, wealth, honor, treasure, majesty, brightness, and the presence of the divine. Other meanings include pride, arrogance, boastfulness, or taking great pleasure in something. It can be a personal quality that makes an individual worthy of praise. It can be described as a light shining from a being or person of great holiness. In art, we often see halos around the heads of saints and angels, visually indicating their holiness.

The word can also be used as a verb – the boxer gloried in his triumphs in the ring! Or, in a different sense, the teacher gloried in the success of her students. The mystic gloried in the presence of God in nature.

Phrases such as “Give glory to God,” when used in Scripture, can have another meaning that is culturally specific. For example, in the story of the man born blind and healed by Jesus, the authorities were demanding, “Tell us the truth – confess that you have sinned, that what you are claiming is not true!” The notion of praising God was intimately tied to being truthful. The man’s refusal to recant his account of the healing was actually totally consistent with what they were asking of him. They just didn’t recognize it as such!

The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter brought these reflections on the word glory to mind once again. In his account of the Last Supper, John tells us what happened after Judas left the table (Jn 13:31-33a, 34-35). In this Gospel, Jesus is very much in control of the narrative of what is happening and aware of his unique relationship with the Father. John quotes Jesus: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” The relationship becomes mutual – “If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once.”

There’s a lot of “glory” going on in these few brief words. Knowing what was coming up next for Jesus, it’s rather remarkable to think that his passion and death were the route to glory. And it will happen at once? A rather daunting image…

Jesus continues, making clear the crucial factor for his followers here. The fundamental characteristic of the followers of Jesus is to be their love for each other. In fact, it is so fundamental that it becomes the “new commandment.” To love each other as Jesus has loved us. That is the root of glory – a community of love.

But how can that happen? When will it happen?

The readings from the Acts of the Apostles (14:21-27) and Revelation (21:1-5a) give us a hint.

Last week we heard about the missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas to the city of Antioch in Psidia. Their preaching had mixed results. Gentiles were more open to their preaching than the Jewish community was and eventually they were expelled from the city. The moved on to Iconium, then to Lystra, and Derbe. In each city, they spent some time, teaching and sharing the good news. But it was not all sweetness and light. In one city, Paul was stoned and left for dead. In another they fled before the crowd could stone them. Nevertheless, by the time they retraced their steps to return to Antioch in Syria, there were communities of new believers in each area they had visited. They returned to each community of believers as they passed on their way, teaching and encouraging them. They selected and appointed leaders from among the members of the community and asked the Lord’s blessing on their behalf.

When they returned to Antioch in Syria, they reported on their journey and all that God had accomplished. They didn’t brag about their success. They reported on what God had done in opening “the door of faith to the Gentiles.”

One step at a time, for many years, Paul, Barnabas, and other Christians traveled through the known world, spreading the word of God’s love, building communities of followers of the way, and sharing the wonder of the Lord’s glory, reaching beyond Israel to all humans.

This mission was urgent for the early church. Jesus was expected to return very soon. They needed to be ready and to share the news of God’s love and reconciliation with all people as quickly and as widely as possible. There were many bumps along the way. Plenty of challenges and conflicts to work out. Much reflection on what had happened and what it meant. But under it all, there was a sense of urgency. The Lord is coming soon!

When the second coming didn’t come as quickly as anticipated, more reflection was needed. The reading from Revelation presents a deeper and newer understanding of what it means to say that Jesus is with us always. If he’s not visibly present, where is he and when will we see him? This reading presents a new reality.

A new heaven and a new earth – a new holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. In this great vision, John explains that God will now live with humans forever. They will be his people. He will be their God. Eternity begins here and now. Tears will be dried away. The old order is gone.

In the old Jerusalem, God was present in the Temple. In the new, there is no temple. The city, the community of believers, is the dwelling place of God.

The end does not have to come immediately. The One on the throne declares: “Behold, I make all things new.” It is already begun here and now.

Glory shines forth from the ordinary, the everyday, the one-step-at-a-time of our lives. When we care for each other, when we care for the earth and its creatures, when we notice and smile at another person, the glory of God shines forth.

We don’t consciously see the light shining forth in these encounters. Our eyes aren’t tuned to see it. But if we are attentive, we notice the love and affection and “a certain something” that is present. Similarly, at times when that love is blocked or denied expression, we notice that too. Again, we don’t physically perceive the loss of that “light,” but we feel it if we pay attention.

This week, let’s reflect together on the ways and times in our lives when the glory of the Lord shines through. Let’s rejoice in health, endure suffering patiently, and trust that with God among us, all will be well. One step at a time, we’re on our way and are taking our communities and our world along with us.

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Posted by on May 1, 2022

Doing Ordinary Things When Everything Else is Not Normal

Doing Ordinary Things When Everything Else is Not Normal

Most of the time, when we wake up in the morning, we have a pretty good idea what kinds of things will happen during any particular day. We get up, dress, have breakfast, and get started on the day’s activities – school, work, social gatherings, and so forth. But once in a while, something unusual happens that upsets the entire normal reality. These can be happy things or sad things. Getting news of the birth of a long-awaited child, for example, starts a chain of joyful activities to support the parents and child through the first challenging days and weeks of life. Getting news that a loved one has passed away, on the other hand, starts of chain of difficult tasks, grief, and disruption of daily schedules and activities.

Having come through a year in which multiple loved ones have passed away, I find the reaction of Jesus’ closest friends during the days following his death and burial very understandable. On this Third Sunday of Easter, Jesus’ friends are bewildered and trying to sort out what has just happened. They know he has died. They are hoping against hope that there really is some way that Jesus has risen from death, but are they just imagining things? Can it really be true?

As all this swirls around them, Peter declares, “I’m going fishing.” Fishing is something normal, ordinary, everyday, easy to understand. Either you catch fish or you don’t. It was the work he and most of Jesus’ other closest friends had done for years before they met him. They can always go back to fishing.

We too go back to doing things that are comfortable. We go to the office and sit doing routine things that don’t require us to be brilliant. We go to school. We go to the kitchen and bake cupcakes. We wash the car, or pull weeds, or change the bedding so guests will have clean sheets when they come. Peter and the others went fishing.

St. John (21:1-19) tells us that they fished all night and didn’t catch a thing. At dawn, they saw someone standing on the shore who called out and asked if they had gotten anything.  They responded that they hadn’t. The stranger told them to toss the nets out on the other side of the boat and they would find something. This had happened once before, when Jesus first called them to follow him. They did as he instructed without arguing this time. The nets were filled to bursting with fish. It was at this point that something changed. “The disciple whom Jesus loved” (tradition says this was John) recognized the Lord and told Peter. Peter tucked his robe into his belt and jumped into the sea, swimming for shore. The other disciples brought the boat into shore and pulled in the net full of fish.

Jesus had a fire ready and invited them to bring some fish to cook for breakfast. They selected some as they counted their catch – 153 fish and the nets hadn’t broken! Why does it matter how many fish there were? Some writers in the early church noted that there were 153 peoples in the Roman Empire – thus the number reflected the entire world. Another theory suggests that 153,000 men worked to build the temple in Jerusalem, therefore these 153 fish might symbolize the construction of a new temple, not made of bricks, that would become the community of followers of the Lord. Remember, when Jesus first called Peter, he promised to make Peter a “Fisher of men” of humans.

After a breakfast of bread and fish, served to them around a fire by Jesus, there was still something that needed to be addressed – Peter’s denial of Jesus three times on the night of his trial. So Jesus asks Peter three times, “Simon… do you love me?” He uses Peter’s original name, Simon. Each time, with increasing intensity, Simon Peter responds that he does love Jesus. Jesus tells him first, “Feed my lambs.” The next time it’s,”Tend my sheep.” The final time it’s, “Feed my sheep.” The word love used by John to tell of this exchange has two different meanings in the original Greek. One is friendship. The other is deeply committed love. The first two times Jesus posed the question, he used the term for deeply committed love and Peter responded with the love of friendship. The third time, Jesus used the term for friendship and Peter used the word for deeply committed love. Peter’s commitment had become deeply personal and committed to Jesus.

Finally, Jesus mentions the type of death that will come to Peter. Peter is not going to die peacefully in his bed surrounded by his children and grandchildren in old age. Peter will die when he is older at the hands of others, in a way he would rather not die. Jesus then said, “Follow me.”

Peter and the others did follow Jesus. In taking a step into something familiar when they were in great distress and confusion, they met the Lord again and in a way that they could recognize him and again hear the call to follow. They returned to Jerusalem, they received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and they witnessed to what they had seen and heard – the great deeds of the Lord in reconciling humanity with God.

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles (5:27-32,40b-41) describes an event from some of the earliest days of the church. The apostles had been teaching and healing people daily in the city. The community was growing dramatically. The leaders of the Sanhedrin had told Peter and the others to stop teaching and causing such disruption of everyday life in the city. But Peter and his companions did not stop. They were arrested and ordered to stop speaking in Jesus’ name. Peter and the others declined to do so, saying, “We must obey God rather than men.” A section of the story not included in the ready tells that they were flogged and released with a warning not to continue teaching. But as they left the Sanhedrin, they rejoiced to have “been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.”

The story of the early church continued for many years and is told in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s well worth reading. Many triumphs, many defeats, much joy and much suffering. Ultimately, the preaching of the Good News throughout the Roman Empire to Jews and Gentiles alike continued and spread. There’s more to the story of early Christianity in this book than can be included in the Sunday liturgies.

The story culminates symbolically in the Book of Revelation (5:11-14), as John describes what he saw in his visions on the Island of Patmos over 50 years after Jesus’ resurrection. The reading today describes all creatures in heaven and earth, creatures under the earth, and the entire universe giving praise to God. This is the reality of the work of all of creation, the praise of God.

In this one day’s readings, we see the transition of a group of discouraged men who just needed to do something ordinary, to go fishing, when everything was crashing around them around them. In this transition they became a group of men unafraid to speak out before religious and political authorities in witness of what they had seen and heard. They took this word out to their community and it spread through the known world. All the earth can now join in praising God for this reconciliation of human and divine.

How do we participate in this great mystery? Do we find the Lord in the ordinary things of life? Do we meet Him in each other and in strangers along the way? Are we open to hearing new things, to receiving new insights from the events and people in our lives? Do our lives reflect the joy of the resurrection? Will people find us and our lives appealing enough to want to learn the source of our joy?

Easter and its wonders continue this week. May we be open at this time to see the Lord in new ways and in new places as we move through our daily activities, as the Apostles did on the seashore long ago.

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Posted by on Apr 24, 2022

Mercy – A welcoming back into the circle

Mercy – A welcoming back into the circle

Easter is both a day and a season. For fifty days, we bask in and reflect upon the great mystery of the Resurrection. The Sunday after Easter, the Second Sunday of Easter, is also known as Divine Mercy Sunday. We have a chance on this day to notice God’s loving presence in our lives, even when we are not consciously aware of that presence and possibly even actively turning away from it.

Many years ago, I was teaching a group of 5th and 6th graders in our parish religious education program. I had the children for two years at a time, so we got to know each other well. One year I had a girl in the class who was quite bright. She could also be quite impulsive and outspoken. Everyone liked her and she was a natural leader.

I always started class by calling the children into a circle. We recited a verse, sang a prayer, and then prayed for their special intentions before I began to present the topic of that day. One day, she was not feeling ready to begin class when I called them together. We met after school on a Thursday, so they were all tired of school by that time of day. I made class as little like school as possible, to help them enjoy our time of learning together. But she was not ready to stop visiting with her friends and enter into our lesson. Instead, she turned her back to me and commented that she didn’t like what I had just said to her, so she wasn’t going to join us.

There we were. A group of ten to fifteen people in a circle, ready to begin our time together and one person had turned away from us. The other children were astounded at her behavior and clearly wondered what I would do.

What would you do?

Here’s what I did. I spoke to the other children and called their attention to what we were seeing. We were all there together happily, in a circle and ready to begin our activity. One person had turned away. It was a beautiful example of what happens when we choose not to do what the Lord is asking us to do. What happens when we choose to go our own way and refuse to go the Lord’s way. The Lord and the community are still there waiting and inviting us to join the circle. We turn away. As soon as we turn back, we are immediately incorporated back into the group.

When my student realized that she had just given me a perfect example of what we were going to be learning that day, she turned back immediately, filled with apologies to her classmates for giving me a chance to teach them through her example. Of course, all was forgiven and we continued with the lesson. That year we were learning about God, prayer, and sacraments. It was just perfect timing!

The Gospel reading from St. John today speaks of something similar (Jn 20:19-31). It is Easter Sunday evening. The disciples are gathered in the upper room. They don’t really understand what has happened. It’s the first day of the new week, the day after the Sabbath. And here appears Jesus. The first thing he says to them is, “Peace be with you.” To show them he wasn’t a ghost, he showed them his hands and his side, pierced by nails and sword. Again, he spoke to them, “Peace be with you.” Not a word of condemnation or scolding for having run away or denied him. Just Peace.

Then he went even further, breathing on them the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who is love, giving them authority to forgive the sins of other humans. This is pretty amazing stuff. Humans can forgive like God does and on behalf of God?

Thomas wasn’t there that night. He didn’t believe a word of it. No sir, not a word of it. Furthermore, he made clear, he would not believe until he had seen for himself and touched the nail marks and the sword wound in Jesus’ side. A week later, Jesus appeared again and called Thomas to touch his hands and his side, instructing him to believe now. Jesus also spoke words that ring through the centuries to all of us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” We are some of those millions and billions of people who have believed without physical evidence of the Lord’s resurrection.

The people of Jerusalem saw the evidence of his resurrection in the community that formed among them, caring for each other and those around them (Acts 5:12-16). They recognized the power of healing that flowed through them and brought the sick out to be seen and healed. Many joined the community because of the love they saw among those who were already followers of the way.

We too see the Lord’s presence in the community around us. We experience it in the actions of other members of our community. We see healing and forgiveness that draw families and communities back together. As the early followers of Jesus were noticed, people who have seen the love within our families and communities have also been drawn to seek the Lord.

On Easter Sunday, the eighth day of creation dawned. A new start for humans and for our relationship with God burst forth. A community came into being that would grow and eventually encircle the globe, a community of love and forgiveness. A community led by “one like a son of man” who is “the first and the last, the one who lives.” The author of the Book of Revelation shares with us this vision he received and the encouragement to continue in faith as a community (Rev1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19). In obedience, he writes down what he has seen, because it is happening and continues to be happening, not just then, but into our times and into the future. The circle of Divine Love and community is always present. We are free to turn toward the circle or to turn away. Divine mercy waits patiently for each of us to turn back into the circle and rejoin the dance of life.

As we move forward during this season of Easter, how do we welcome those from whom we may have become estranged?  How do we reach out in love and forgiveness? How do we seek reconciliation with those whom we have hurt? How do our communities welcome the stranger or encourage the one who has grown tired and lost hope? How can we be the face of the Lord’s mercy and love? How do we receive it in our own lives?

It’s a new day. Creation is new and our relationship with God is fresh and ready to grow. The Lord is Risen! Mercy is ever-present! Alleluia.

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Posted by on Apr 3, 2022

Doing Something New

Doing Something New

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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