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Posted by on Apr 21, 2024

Help in Time of Need – The Shepherd

Help in Time of Need – The Shepherd

The afternoon was bright and sunny. The ocean was quiet. The breeze was gentle. All was peaceful and calm.

Suddenly, the chickens next door began to squawk and race around their yard. The roosters began to crow at the top of their lungs. The dogs barked up a racket. Something drastic was happening and they were telling the world.

Neighbors wondered if someone had fallen or if there had been some sort of accident to provoke such an uproar. But when they checked, all seemed fine and the animals had quieted again.

Later, the owner of the chickens and dogs explained that he had seen what looked like a badger approaching the house. The animals had responded according to their nature. The chickens were panicked, not having a great number of self-defense options! The dogs had shouted a warning to their owner that a serious problem was needing attention. And with all the uproar, the threatening animal changed plans and went back to the field.

St. John tells us that Jesus spoke of himself as the Good Shepherd. In biblical times, prophets often spoke of the leaders of the people as being their shepherds. This made sense with an historically pastoralist people, who raised sheep and goats and traveled with their animals. Jesus took the idea of shepherd farther than the traditional one of God as the Shepherd of Israel and leaders who failed to obey the Law as bad shepherds. Jesus declared, “I am the Good Shepherd.” In saying this, he was using the same terminology and usage as God had used when he spoke from the burning bush to Moses, “I Am.” This was one of seven times in John’s Gospel that Jesus speaks of himself in divine terms.

Jesus speaks of the role of the Good Shepherd as watching over the sheep and protecting them. Remembering my niece’s comment about sheep being dumb as compared with goats, I find Jesus’ statement even more striking. The Good Shepherd cares about the sheep, even if, and maybe because, they are not the most intelligent animals.  The Good Shepherd will protect the sheep even at risk of his own life. Jesus will give his own life for his sheep. Those who do not own the sheep will not do this. When the wolf (or badger or hawk in the case of the chickens) comes creeping up on the sheep, the hired shepherd might well run away. Wolves are not animals that are easily defeated. They work together in packs and don’t hesitate to go after humans too, if necessary to get the sheep.

When Jesus spoke about being the Good Shepherd, it was expected that only the Hebrew people were of interest to God. God was still a deity of only one relatively small group of people. Outsiders had no place among those to be protected by the shepherd. Jesus, however, did not consider only the Jews to be the sheep loved and protected. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” His mission is big enough to include all peoples. All are to be members of one flock. And all will be included in the salvation gained for them by the good shepherd who dies rather than allowing them to be lost. (Jn 10:11-18)

This was a huge expansion of understanding of the relationship between God and humanity. Through Jesus, God’s love and call extended formally to all. Those who believe and follow him become children of God. (1 Jn 3:1-2)

Because of the close relationship between the shepherd and the sheep, miraculous healings continued after the Resurrection through the actions of the apostles, as signs of Jesus’ power and relationship with the Father in the Trinity. Humans don’t typically have the power to heal with a word or a touch. But Jesus does. (Acts 4:8-12)

Like the owner of the chickens and dogs who faced the badger this past week, Jesus and his followers step up to help those who need extra help. This includes those with little money, those who have health issues, those whose physical safety is threatened, those who must leave their homes to protect themselves and their children, those who learn new skills or do jobs that don’t take advantage of their existing education but allow them to send funds to help their families far away. Thus, many, many people follow the Good Shepherd and do what they can to help and protect the sheep. And the Good Shepherd is there among all of us, his sheep, with all the messiness of our lives, walking with us and helping us along the way.

In this next week, let’s reflect on the ways we experience the protection and love of our Shepherd. Let’s also reflect on how we can share in his mission and help protect others whom we meet in our daily lives.

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – Cycle B

 

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Posted by on Apr 14, 2024

Perfected in Love – Part of a circle

Perfected in Love – Part of a circle

It was an afternoon class, after a long day at school for all of the children. They had come together from several schools for religious education class that afternoon. They were members of the same parish, so they knew each other, had been in classes together since kindergarten. They were friends. They happily visited with each other until their teacher called them together to begin the day’s lesson.

One girl was having a happy conversation with one of her friends and didn’t really want to  stop and begin class. As the other children formed a circle with their teacher for their beginning song and prayer, she turned her back on the circle. She was in the circle, but her back was turned.

Her teacher was shameless about taking advantage of whatever happened in class to teach the children, so rather than get upset or angry, she directed the attention of the other children to what was happening. The circle was still there, even though the child was not participating. All she needed to do was to turn around and she would also be included in the conversations and lessons that would follow. But it was entirely up to her whether she would remain excluded or whether she would join. The situation was a perfect example of what happens when we turn away from God’s love and decide to go it alone. The choice to return is always our own.

This incident came to mind as I read St. Luke’s account of what happened on Easter Sunday evening when the Lord appeared to the apostles in the Upper Room. (Lk 24:35-48) Luke tells us that those who had met him on the road to Emmaus had returned and just told their companions that they had met the Lord and recognized him “in the breaking of the bread.” And then he was there in their midst. The doors were locked. There was no way for anyone to get in. Yet there he was. Quite a startling thing to experience, and not just a little frightening. It must be a ghost!

Jesus’ first words were ones of reassurance. “Peace be with you.”  He began to reassure them by having them touch him, including his wounds. He asked for food and ate it. Then he began again to teach them. This time it was about the history of prophecies regarding what would happen when the Christ came. They were more ready to hear what he wanted them to know and their minds were opened to understand. Jesus told them that repentance for the forgiveness of sin would be the message shared with all the world, beginning in Jerusalem. They themselves would now be the ones to witness to what they had seen and heard.

And so they were.

After Pentecost, the apostles preached fearlessly in Jerusalem, healing the sick and leading the community in worship and in communal living and service. Many thought the miracles of healing were the results of the actions and power of the disciples, but Peter and the others were quick to point out that they were not the source of the healing. (Acts 3:13-15, 17-19) It was the power of Jesus acting through them. Peter spoke one day, explaining in an ancient formula the divine origin of Jesus’ power and life. “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant, Jesus…”

It was a frightening thought to the people that they might have been complicit in acting against the prophet, the servant of God. But Peter was reassuring. Although they had acted against the anointed one, God would forgive them, because they didn’t know what they were doing. Repenting and not repeating their sin would lead to its forgiveness. In other words, they could turn back to the circle and again be part of the community of God. Being converted means to turn back to the circle of love.

St. John tells the community of the Beloved and all of us that when and if we sin, “we have an Advocate with the Father,” namely Jesus the righteous one. (1 Jn 2:1-5a) As we keep his word, keep his commandments, God’s love is perfected in us. Love is perfected as we love our God above all things and love our neighbors as ourselves. Turned into the circle and drawing strength from the Lord and our community, we can begin to live the law of love. We can be perfected in love, bit by bit, each time we turn back to the circle of those with whom we live in this great community of love.

May we be aware of the love we share and receive with others in this coming week and of the readiness of the Lord always to welcome us back into the community when we for any reason turn our backs on the circle.

Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter – Cycle B

 

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Posted by on Mar 30, 2024

How Do We Remember?

How Do We Remember?

Memory is a tricky thing. As we go through life, we experience so many things that it would be overwhelming if we were aware of all of them at every second of every day. Good things, hard things, sad things, short-time things, long-term things.

When things happen that are particularly memorable or important, we think we’ll never forget them. But we do forget details. And our memories reflect what we found most important about the events. Have you ever told a story to someone else about a past event and had a partner or friend who was there and an active participant in the event tell a very different story or correct your version? The older we get, the more frequently it happens, I think.

Part of what happens is that our minds process information based on our experiences and our past history. The explanatory systems of our culture and our society, the ways we explain why things happen and how it all came to be, also shape the way our experiences are processed. Over time, memories of the everyday sort begin to be just one of so many stored in the “card catalog” of our internal mental libraries – there for the finding again, but maybe a bit aged, torn, or tattered.

I started thinking about memories this year during the Holy Thursday liturgy as we heard the story of the first Passover and St. Paul’s description of how Eucharist was celebrated in the first Christian communities. These events took place thousands of years ago! Yet we still remember and celebrate them. More amazingly, we celebrate them in a way very close to what was originally described.

Moving through the rest of the week, we hear more of the story of God’s work in bringing about reconciliation between humanity and himself. The words of prophets calling the community to care for the least capable people among us. The praise of those who are faithful to their mission despite being mistreated, abused, and even killed. The retelling of the ancient stories of creation, the covenant with Abraham, the crossing of the Red Sea. Descriptions of the Last Supper, Jesus’ agonized prayer in the garden before his arrest, his trial, execution, and burial. The wonder of the Resurrection, first discovered by women from the community who were his followers. The reflections of that community on what happened in the life of Jesus and the tremendous surprise of the Resurrection. Nobody expected such an outcome! There were no precedents on which to draw for explanation.

How would it all be passed on to a wider group of people? It was too important to be kept a secret, though in the first weeks no one spoke publicly about it. That would have been too dangerous. With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they were emboldened to speak publicly and so the world has come to know the wonders they witnessed.

The memories written down in the Gospels and Passion narratives are very similar, but they too were written by different people in different places and for different audiences. So, some of the details differ. The basics remain the same, however. The event happened and in more or less the same way described in each account.

Then how do these differ from other ancient stories such as the Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and others? Why are they still remembered and actively celebrated in a way similar to the ancient ways?

Perhaps there are a few things that have made it possible. The first that comes to mind is the fact that these events happened in a community which had a history of remembering and reenacting ancient events. The Lord told the people that first Passover that the date on which it happened originally was to be the first day of the new year for them. It was to be celebrated the same way each year. And so it happened. Even to our day, at Passover, families and friends gather to celebrate this saving act of the Most High. Out of this celebration, the Christian community drew their remembrance, because Jesus gave the same kind of instructions to his friends when they gathered for the dinner. “Do this in remembrance of me.” This line is repeated each time we gather for Eucharist. Because the Resurrection took place on the first day of the week, Sunday on our calendar, it was seen as the beginning of a new reality in creation.

Another factor that has played into the continuation of this wonder is the fact that it involves more than just words. We pray actively – sitting, listening, standing, moving around the room, singing, eating, and drinking. We bring all of our senses into the experience, so we learn it deeply in our very being. The tastes, the smells, the sights and sounds – all are incorporated into our memories of the experience. Do we remember each specific time we have celebrated Eucharist? No. But we remember it as part of the rhythm of our lives and remember at least some details of the times that were out of the ordinary.

Perhaps one of the most important factors is that there is no time in Eternity. God’s time is totally separate from ours. God’s time is all Now, the present. From this comes the ancient Hebrew understanding that “Our ancestors crossed the Red Sea and our feet are wet.” When we celebrate Eucharist, the same thing happens. We are present with the apostles at that table with Jesus. We receive the same gift from him that was given to his closest friends. We are part of that community of “closest friends.”

And so, in the words of a lovely hymn, “We remember how you loved us to your death and still we celebrate for you are with us here. And we believe that we will see you, when you come in your glory, Lord. We remember, we celebrate, we believe.”

Happy Easter!

Readings for Holy Thursday – Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper – Cycle B

Readings for Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion – Cycle B

Readings for Easter Vigil – Cycle B

Readings for Easter Sunday – Cycle B

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Posted by on Mar 24, 2024

Hosanna – Please Save Us

Hosanna – Please Save Us

It’s funny how we can live for many years and hear a word over and over without really knowing what it originally meant. I discovered this yet again as I was looking over the readings for Palm Sunday. Words in scripture have very specific meanings that sometimes differ from our usage of them today. We repeat them day after day, week after week, year after year. And what we may think we are saying is not necessarily what the original words meant to those who first said them.

Hosanna is one of those words. In a Christian context, it has come to mean praise, adoration, joy. As a noun, it refers to these same feelings. Words of praise for a wonderful musical performance can be described as hosannas, for example.

Yet the original definition of the word is different. In Hebrew, hosanna is a word that means “save us, please,” or “help.” It is used in prayer as part of the liturgy for Sukkot, the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles.

On Palm Sunday, we enter into Holy Week, the culmination of our Lenten Journey. We begin our “deep dive” into the mystery of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

It all started with a ride on a colt – a young donkey or horse. One that had never before been ridden. It was Passover time and Jerusalem was full of people who had come to town to celebrate the great feast. It was rather like the crowds that gather in Rome for Easter in our times. Jesus was also planning to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. He had arrived with his followers at the home of friends in a nearby town.

As he typically did, he planned to go into the city. But this time he did not plan to slip quietly into town to pray. All four Gospels tell of this day. He sent his disciples into town to find a colt on which he would ride. They put cloaks on the colt and Jesus rode on it. When people saw him coming, or heard that he was coming, they raced out to see the sight.

Now, this was somewhat like the entry of a conquering hero, a military leader, except he wasn’t mounted on a great war horse, he was quietly riding a colt. The prophet Zechariah had said that the king, the savior, would come mounted on a colt. People came out to see him coming. They put cloaks across the road and waved tree branches, palm branches, in his honor, just as had happened in ancient times with the arrival of a king.

And what did the crowds of people cry out? “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” In essence they were saying: Help us, you who are coming in the name – the authority and power – of the Lord, our God, true King of Israel! (Mk 11:1-10 or Jn 12:12-16))

That’s pretty powerful stuff.

Most of the folks calling out for Jesus to help them expected that he would be a military hero who could defeat the Romans and restore the Kingdom of Israel. The Messiah, the Anointed One, was expected to do that. But that was not to be. It was not the way the Lord works.

The readings continue the story for us. Jesus entered the city. He continued teaching and interacting with the authorities. But that’s not what we hear in the readings this day. Today we hear of the sufferings of a Servant of the Lord whose words were not welcomed by those in power. This person whose cry we hear holds fast to hope in the Lord. “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” (Is 50:4-7)

We hear the prayer in Psalm 22 of another who suffered greatly for faithfulness to the Lord’s call. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Jesus himself prayed this prayer as he hung dying on the cross. It sounds hopeless, until you come to its magnificently hopeful and glorious end. “I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you … Give glory to him; revere him all you descendants of Israel!”

Another hymn reminds the Philippians and all of us that Jesus, the Christ, did not choose to remain aloof from us as God but rather became one of us. He lived a totally human life and suffered a tortured, disgraced death. Yet in entering so deeply into human life and suffering, without returning evil for evil, he transformed it for all of us. (Phil 2:6-11)

Finally, we hear the story of Jesus’ last few days. We learn of the plots against him. We hear of the gift of anointing given him by a woman who visited the home of his friends in Bethany. We shake our heads at the actions of Judas Iscariot, who agreed to hand over his friend to the authorities. And then we hear of that Last Supper in which Jesus gave us the bread and wine of the New Covenant, one that would not require animal sacrifice. (Mk 14:1-15:47)

As we listen to these words and enter once again into the mystery, may we take time to ponder the lessons of these stories.

The people there and we here today pray: Hosanna – Help us, please save us, You who come in the Name of the Lord.

We all need help on our journey. Jesus opened the door to reconciliation with our Father. He also helps us along the way.

Readings for Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

 

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Posted by on Mar 22, 2024

A New Covenant – Written on Our Hearts

A New Covenant – Written on Our Hearts

The story of the relationship between God and humans is told beginning in the Hebrew Scriptures, with the creation myths of the Hebrew people. We learn of the creation, from two different perspectives, each intended to answer specific questions that had arisen in the course of the years. We hear of the covenant between Abraham and God, in which it became known that God is not a local god, limited to one place and time. We learn of the continuation of that covenant through Isaac and Jacob and their descendants.

Following the time in Egypt, when the people were led out into the desert by  Moses to offer sacrifice to God and move to a new land and life as free people again, Moses took them to the mountain on which he had first encountered God, Mt Sinai. There the covenant, the Law by which the people were to live, was inscribed on stone tablets. The tablets were kept in a special tent that was taken with the people wherever they went.

Eventually, in the time of King Solomon, a temple was built in Jerusalem. The tablets of the Law were carefully placed in the center of the building, the Holy of Holies. This area of the temple was kept apart from ordinary people. Only a select few priests were allowed to enter to offer sacrifice and prayers there.

By the time of the prophet Jeremiah, the Covenant had been broken many times by the people and their leaders. God was always faithful and kept sending prophets to call people back to faithfulness. There were times when enemies prevailed and times when the people were victorious over their enemies.

Jeremiah was a prophet during the time when the Babylonians were the most powerful empire. The northern kingdoms of Israel had long since been conquered. The southern ones, Juda and Benjamin, were semi-independent yet, but trouble was brewing. Jeremiah kept warning the leaders and people that if they did not reform their lives, God would allow them to be conquered. He met with unrelenting opposition and as predicted, the Babylonians came in force, destroyed the temple, and took the leaders and many of the people into exile in Babylon. They remained there for 70 years, until Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and returned those who had been taken into exile and their descendants to their homeland. (Jer 31:31-34)

Jeremiah’s words promise a new kind of covenant.

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people… All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD.”

How can this be? It’s a pretty drastic step on God’s part to assume that people will be able to hold the law of the Lord in their hearts and that all will know him.

I would like to suggest that it’s something that takes many years to learn, but that is planted at the very beginnings of our lives. We come to our parents as helpless infants. We have normal bodily functions, assuming we are healthy, but we can’t eat or drink or anything else unless someone else provides for us. We cry out for attention, help, comfort. But unless someone hears and comes to us, we will simply cry until we are exhausted. We may eventually even give up hope and die.

It is in the giving and receiving of love that we learn God’s law, which Jesus summarized as, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind … and … You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22: 37-39)

We can only love if we have first experienced love. When we don’t get the love we need, it takes much longer to learn to love. We have to be healed with loving patience first.

But we are born to love and be loved, not necessarily in that order. What is learned in the depths of our hearts will always be stronger than anything written on a stone, or on a clay tablet, or in a book, or on the internet! What is written on our hearts lasts through time.

As we move towards Holy Week and the end of our Lenten journey, may we be open to receive the healing love of our God each day, and to pass it on to those we meet on our journey. As this happens, we come to experience the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophetic words. The covenant will be written on our hearts and all will know the Lord.

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent – Cycle B

 

 

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Posted by on Mar 10, 2024

Gifts From God for All to See

Gifts From God for All to See

The readings for Laetare Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, bring word of God’s love and mercy through the centuries and in our lifetime as well.

The story begins in the generations before the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The people and their leaders were repeatedly unfaithful to the covenant with the Lord. They worshiped the gods of neighboring peoples, even daring to do so in the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. God sent messengers, prophets, to them, calling them to return to faithfulness to the covenant, but their message was not well received. Many were mocked, imprisoned, or killed for their efforts. Finally, when the Babylonians came and conquered Israel, the Temple was destroyed and most of the people, including their leaders, were taken to work as slaves in Babylon. It seemed like the end of the world. Where was God? Why had God abandoned them?

For seventy years, we are told, the land of Israel rested, retrieving “its lost sabbaths,” according to the prophet Jeremiah. And then a miracle happened. A new king, Cyrus, became the ruler of the next kingdom to the east of Babylon, the kingdom of Persia – the land we now know as Iran. Cyrus conquered Babylon (present day Iraq). He issued a spoken and written proclamation ordering that “the Lord, the God of heaven,” had instructed him to build a house for him in Jerusalem and to allow the Lord’s people to return to their homes in Israel.

And so the people returned, the Temple was rebuilt, and life resumed in Israel. God’s mercy brought them home. (2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23)

The theme of mercy and light in the darkness continues through the rest of the readings. Nicodemus, a pharisee and teacher of the law visited Jesus at night, wanting to understand more about him and his teachings. He was puzzled when Jesus spoke of being born again of water and Spirit. It was all very confusing, especially when Jesus spoke of the Son of Man who would be lifted up as Moses lifted the serpent in the desert, to bring healing to the people.

Jesus promised Nicodemus and all of us that God loves us so much that he sent his Son to us, to give us eternal life. Again, the message is of mercy. Light has come into the world, attracting those who live the truth and whose actions can be seen as done in God. (Jn 3:14-21)

St. Paul explains to the people of Ephesus that God’s mercy, flowing out of his great love for us moves us beyond the realm of sin and into the world of his own life, risen with Christ. Grace, this share in God’s life, is a gift from God, allowing us to see and live in his presence. We are God’s handiwork, created to do good in our world through Christ. (Eph 2:4-10)

God works in many ways, in many times. We open our eyes and see his mercy and love through the centuries – generation after generation.

May we open our eyes and ears to see and hear God’s presence in our own lives this week. The One who has loved humans through all of history loves each of us too. Truly this good news is a reason for rejoicing. Laetare – Rejoice.

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent – Cycle B

 

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Posted by on Mar 3, 2024

Three-legged Stool – Law, Temple & God

Three-legged Stool – Law, Temple & God

None of us is a solitary individual, never touched or influenced by any other person. We are born into families and communities with stories and traditions that stretch back centuries and will continue long after we die. We grow up within these families, sharing the history of their joys and sorrows, learning from the mistakes others have made, sometimes being wounded by those whose own painful experiences have not yet healed. The insights and blessings received by those who raise us and grow up with us also become rooted deep within our being. We share an adventure of life in a specific time and place.

Jesus also was born and grew up in a family and culture. He was as helpless as any other baby boy when he entered his parents’ lives. He learned from them and his extended family. As did all boys, he learned a trade and he learned what it is to be a man of faith within his Jewish tradition. He studied the Law. He worshiped at the Temple with his family. And he prayed the Shema daily – “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One.” (Dt 6:4) The Law formed the basis for interpersonal relationships and for one’s relationship with the Lord.

The Law was given to the Israelites following their time in Egypt and escape into the desert in the Exodus. God gave a series of commandments to Moses by which the people were to be governed – a way of living. We tend to think of the Law as the Ten Commandments only. But those brief statements are simply a summation of a much more extensive set of rules and expectations for behavior within the community. (Ex 20:1-17)

The Temple came along later. The tablets of the Law were carried in a special container and kept in a special tent while they traveled to the Promised Land. Once there, they remained in their tent until King Solomon built the Temple. It was destroyed and rebuilt at least once before the time of Jesus. The final destruction of the Temple happened after his death and resurrection.

This combination of the Law, the Temple, and belief in One God was the bedrock of Jesus’ life. God cared about the people enough to give them rules by which to live together in peace. Prayer and rest were built into each day.

When Jesus  went to Jerusalem shortly after his first miracle at Cana in Galilee, he entered the Temple and was appalled by the ways it had been turned into a marketplace. In the outer areas, there were many animals for sale, so people could buy them to be offered as sacrifices inside the Temple. This was still a time in which animals were killed sacrificially. For a people who were historically shepherds, the animals were a form of wealth. As times changed and more people lived in towns, animals were still sacrificed, but the people had to buy them rather than raise them. Hence the marketplace of animals in the outer areas of the Temple.

Jesus chased the animals and people selling them out of the temple. He upset the tables of those whose profession was to take regular money from people and exchange it for money that could be used to buy the animals for sacrifice. (It was a lucrative trade.)

Needless to say, the authorities were not amused. They asked him what he thought he was doing! By what authority was he acting? “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Jesus responded, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” St. John tells us that Jesus was speaking of his coming resurrection from the dead. (John’s Gospel presents Jesus as in charge of his life and his fate, knowing what he is doing pretty much from the start.) The authorities heard this statement as a claim that he could destroy and rebuild the physical temple in three days – something that was clearly impossible, the words of an imposter. But many people who heard his preaching and saw the signs he was working in Jerusalem began to believe in his power and authority.

Later, after the resurrection, the disciples remembered Jesus’ words and the sign he had promised they would see. (Jn 2:13-25)

For Jews, signs were important for justifying an action. For Greeks, wisdom and logic were more important. St. Paul reflects on this. God does not act in ways we would consider logical or wise. The signs God uses are not those of success or wealth. Strength is not the basis of God’s wisdom and power. God’s actions in loving and forgiving and giving himself over to experience all of the hardship and pain that can come along with human life seem totally foolish. But they are the source of our hope. This God who is One and is not like the multiple warring, scheming gods of other peoples, is the One who loves each of us. (1 Cor 1:22-25)

We remember the Law, the rules for living together in peace that Jesus passed on to us as well, and our need to pray, to spend time listening and speaking with God. And we remember and rejoice in our One God who became one of us. We too have a three-legged stool on which we can rest and grow closer to each other on our journey home to God our Father.

As we continue to journey through Lent, let us rejoice in the support we have been given and trust that in our times of weakness, our God is there to support us and transform all that happens in our lives into a blessing.

Readings for the Third Sunday of Lent – Cycle B

 

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Posted by on Feb 25, 2024

Put to the Test by God

Put to the Test by God

The twelve-year-old boy rushed breathlessly into my classroom and came straight up to me with a question that had been on his mind for days. “He didn’t kill him, did he?” he demanded to know. He was the older son in a troubled family and had only consciously heard the first part of the story of God’s test of Abraham’s faith during Mass on the Sunday before our class. I’m sure the entire reading had been proclaimed, but he had not heard it. He had waited until we met on Thursday afternoon, worrying about this terrible command God had given to Abraham – to sacrifice his only son. How could this be? What kind of God would do such a thing? How could a good God require the killing of a child? He had been so shocked by the mere thought of God asking a man to kill his only son that he stopped hearing anything more right at that point. He had not heard the rest of the story at all and was deeply relieved when I assured him that in fact, God had not allowed any harm to come to Abraham’s child.

This story of the testing of Abraham (Gn 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13,15-18) and many others like it are deeply troubling to us.  Why would anyone ever think that our God could or would demand the blood sacrifice of children? Why would Abraham have believed that about God?

One of the great challenges we humans face is to be able to conceive of a reality dramatically different from the one in which we live. How can we imagine a person who never loses his or her temper? How can it be possible always to be forgiven? Wouldn’t the fear of punishment be needed to force people to follow the rules? And how can anyone establish that fear without actually punishing someone severely and publicly for misbehavior?

When we listen to the readings from both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, it’s important that we realize we are looking back in time to a very different day and age. Additionally, we are looking from the perspective of a different culture, with different understandings of human behavior and the nature of God.

Abraham lived in a time in which all the people among whom he lived had their own local god or gods whom they believed guided and protected them. These gods were very much like the people who worshiped them: territorial, jealous, protective of those they considered to be their own, impatient, always demanding proof of the good will of others.

The gods of the peoples among whom Abraham and his family lived sometimes required the sacrifice of firstborn sons as proof of loyalty and obedience. They required families to prove their faith by sacrificing a child, typically a son because sons were seen as more valuable. It was rare for families not to have children, so this rule was not hard to enforce.

Abraham would have seen this practice and assumed that the God he first met back home in Mesopotamia would want the same kind of sacrifice from him. Blessedly for Abraham and all of us who follow in worshiping his God, this is not what God requires. Sometimes, we are asked to make tremendous sacrifices. Other times, what we are asked to sacrifice is not life-shaking or life-changing. Nevertheless, when we are asked to make a sacrifice, it is not something easy for us to do. If it were, it wouldn’t really be a sacrifice now, would it?

When Jesus was born, he was truly human and truly God. One hundred percent on both fronts! Not a demi-god – half human and half divine. Fully human. Fully divine. As a human, Jesus did not know everything. He learned like any child what was expected of him as a man. He lived like everyone else, not at all remarkable. Yet when he heard God’s voice at his baptism in the Jordan River, he knew all had changed in that moment. He began to understand how dramatically things had changed. The kingdom had come. His mission was to proclaim it to all who would listen.

Some people welcomed the news. Some were frightened by it. Some thought it too good to be true. Some worried that they would lose their positions of influence. Some probably worried that the Romans who ruled their country would again kill thousands of people for rebelling against the Empire. The notion that a prophet, anointed by God to preach the coming of God’s kingdom, would not be a threat to Roman power was unheard of. Of course they would see it as a threat! How could the threat be minimized?

Jesus needed to testify in Jerusalem to what had happened to him, to the leaders of his community, the priests and teachers at the temple. The kingdom of God was here now. It was essential for them to hear this good news. So he began his journey, teaching and healing as he went along. A group of people accompanied him. Some were with him for a long while and became close companions. Others came for a while and left when his words became frightening or impossible for them to believe.

One day, when he had become very aware of the danger of execution he would be facing in Jerusalem, he went up to a mountain top with three of his closest friends to pray. Mountain tops have often been places where God and humans have met. This day was the same. Jesus and his friends were visited by two historical figures: Moses who received the Law from God and Elijah the prophet who was carried away by a heavenly chariot at the end of his life. Jesus himself began to shine with an unearthly light, his clothes whiter than any bleach could make them. The disciples saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. Then they saw a cloud that came and cast a shadow over the mountain. God often appeared in a cloud and this was no exception. The voice that came from the cloud told them Jesus was his beloved son. They were to listen to him. (Mk 9:2-10)

Interestingly, God spoke similar words to Abraham about his son Isaac, referring to him as “your beloved son.” Abraham’s willingness to give all to God was rewarded with God’s returning of the son to him. An animal was offered in sacrifice instead of the child. (My young student was much relieved to hear that good news!)

When Jesus himself faced the decision whether to complete his mission and bring the good news to the authorities, risking his own death in the process, or to drop the whole thing and go back to being a village carpenter in Galilee, he chose to move forward and take the chance. It was not an easy choice and it cost him his life. But God his Father did not allow it all to end with that suffering and death. God brought Jesus through death to a return to life – a life that will never end, the life of the Trinity.

St. Paul and other early Christians explained that with the resurrection, God forgave all of us for the times we do not obey the divine will. Christ intercedes for us, because he is one of us and has lived a fully human life. He knows what it is to be human. (Rom 8:31b-34)

In a very real way, our God who created humans, was now not so totally envisioned in the human terms that cast him as if he were a jealous, controlling, person. Instead, he came to be known as one who understood and forgave all, because he had come to be one of us through the life of his son the Word of God, Jesus. God knows what it is to be human, so God can and will forgive all who ask for forgiveness. We are put to the test, but so is God. God never fails the test of love. God was even willing to go through with the sacrifice of his Son Jesus, so that all of us would know how much we are loved and could trust deeply in that love.

As we continue our journey through Lent this year, may we remember that God is truly with us on the journey. We are not alone. Our sacrifices, big and small, are noted. Our reaching out in love to those we meet along the way is an essential part of God’s plan for all of us. And God sees each of us as a beloved child.

Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent – Cycle B

 

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Posted by on Feb 18, 2024

A God Who Waits

A God Who Waits

Pushy people sometimes drive me crazy. Perhaps because sometimes, I am told, I can be a bit pushy myself! But if someone says a decision is needed immediately, or something has to be done immediately, my reaction is to move more slowly. Hold on a second. What’s the big hurry? Is someone bleeding? Can it wait for a more convenient time? I had other things I was planning to do right now! You get the picture.

I tend to be more of an introvert than an extrovert, so I need time to think things through before I’m ready to speak or act. Then, once I have figured out what I think, I’m not always as ready to go through the many questions and negotiations with others about why my analysis is correct…

As I thought about the readings for this First Sunday in Lent, St. Peter’s statement that God patiently waited while Noah was building the ark struck me as interesting. The two stories of Noah and the ark both include a recognition on God’s part that it takes time to build a boat/ship as big as the ark would need to be, to say nothing of the time to get all of those animals collected and safely on board. (Parenthetically, in one story only one pair of animals was required while the other story provided for seven pairs of the preferred animals and fewer of the non-preferred ones.)

So, God waited patiently until the ark was built, animals on board, and family safely accommodated. Then it started to rain. Forty days and forty nights, we’re told. The entire earth was covered with water.

When the rains stopped and the water gradually receded, a new relationship and legal agreement, a covenant, was proposed by God. This agreement was set up to be unending. “This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come… a covenant between me and you and every living creature with you.” The sign, of course, was a rainbow. Whenever the rains come, a rainbow will remind God that they must stop before the earth can be flooded completely again. (Gn 9:8-15)

St. Peter mentioned God’s patience in waiting for the ark to be built when he was speaking of Christ’s suffering and death. He described Christ after his death going to preach to those who had had been disobedient to God in the past and had already died. They too heard the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness. Peter describes the way Noah’s family of eight were saved through flood waters as a prefiguring of the waters of baptism. Through baptism, we enter into the mercy of God, who is patient and forgiving with us even though we are not perfect. God is willing to wait for us to learn and grow towards perfection. (1 Pt 3:18-22)

Even Jesus spent time learning. Immediately after his baptism, St. Mark tells us, “the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert.” While he was there, he faced temptation. Angels ministered to him as he spent time among the wild animals there and grew in understanding of his mission. When he returned from the desert, he immediately began telling others whom he met in Galilee, “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Pay attention and hear this good news I’m bringing to you. (Mk 1:12-15)

Jesus spent forty days in the desert, the same amount of time the rains fell in the days of Noah. We too spend forty days in preparation to celebrate the great mystery of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

God is patient. God waits for us. God doesn’t give up on us. God knows some things just take time for creatures whose lives are formed within the dimension of time.

As we enter the first week of Lent, may our eyes and ears be open to perceive the presence of God around us. In what way are we in a desert? In what way will we make room for encounters with the Lord? What do we learn from the rains and storms of winter or the heat of summer, depending on our location on this Earth?

God waits patiently for us. Let’s not be too slow!

Readings for the First Sunday in Lent – Cycle B

 

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Posted by on Feb 13, 2024

Ash Wednesday meets Valentine’s Day

Ash Wednesday meets Valentine’s Day

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. It marks a transition between our regular daily lives and the time of preparation before we celebrate the greatest mystery of our faith, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. It is a day of fasting for adults and refraining from eating meat. (For those who don’t normally eat meat, perhaps some other staple of daily life?) It tends to be a rather solemn and sober day, in contrast to the celebrations that happen on the previous day and night.

On Ash Wednesday, people go to church and receive ashes on their foreheads. The readings speak of sorrow for sin and making amends and giving alms quietly and without great fanfare. It is a quiet day, an introspective day, a day for stopping and taking a break.

Yet this year, in 2024, Ash Wednesday shares a day with the feast of St. Valentine. Valentine’s day is a day to celebrate love and to let others know that we care about them. Lots of people get married on Valentine’s Day. Lots of people go out for dinner on Valentine’s day. Some people are born on Valentine’s Day. Chocolate candies by the ton are purchased and consumed for Valentine’s Day. For weeks, stores have been full of red hearts and balloons and streamers, reminding us to buy something to celebrate with those we love.

It’s a great contrast. A day of fasting and abstinence, with ashes smeared on our faces versus a day of feasting and sharing special treats with those we love. It may not be easy to see how these two realities can meet in the middle and be woven into a whole garment for our lives.

Somehow, I think this may be what we are really called to do each year, whether Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fall near each other or not.

When we are called to repent for the wrong things we have done, whether deliberately or because we were tired or upset or just plain angry, we are called to return to love and to loving behavior. When we celebrate human love and the love of families and friends, we are also called to remember that sometimes love means we have to say we’re sorry. Sometimes love means we have to forgive and let go of our anger and frustration with the other person.

So this year, as Ash Wednesday begins the Season of Lent and Valentine’s Day reminds us of love between and among people, let’s try to remember that we need a bit of both and celebrate the relationship between them.

As we face our mistakes and the hurts we have done to others, let’s also remember the love that we have shared. As we think of the happy times, let’s remember that we need to include those we sometimes exclude from our celebrations.

I wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day and a Blessed Lent as we go forward on our journey to the Lord who loved us so much that he willingly came and shared the Good News of God’s love for us to the end and beyond.

Readings for Ash Wednesday

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Posted by on Feb 11, 2024

Touched by a Healing Hand

Touched by a Healing Hand

How many times have we heard, “Don’t touch that, it’s dirty!” “Don’t eat that. It fell on the floor!” “Ten second rule…” In our society, we distinguish between things that are physically dirty and therefore unsafe to touch or eat and those that are physically clean and safe. We don’t tend to think about things as dirty or unsafe by the very nature of their being, though some foods such as grubs are shunned in our typical American diets. But this has not always been the reality of how peoples classify the things with which they come in contact.

The discovery of microbes such as bacteria and viruses changed our understanding of what causes illness or the infections that can follow injuries. Before their discovery and our growth in understanding of how microbes work, when people got sick or had an infected wound, it was not unusual for the blame to be assigned to an angry deity or a sorcerer/witch or the sin of the person or the parent of the person who was born with a handicap. Bad things didn’t happen to good people. People broke the rules of the gods and bad things happened.

Anthropologist, Mary Douglas, in Purity and Danger, wrote a study of the ways in which peoples classify things as safe (pure or clean) or dangerous (unclean). She noted, for example, in the Book of Leviticus (Lv 13:1-2, 44-46) that skin conditions that caused visible differences in the health or appearance of the skin were considered to be leprosy. Since some of these conditions are contagious, those who contracted them were banished from the community. They were classed as “unclean.” Interestingly, however, once the entire body was covered by the sores, the person could again be seen as whole and readmitted to the community. She suggested that the critical issue was whether the condition was whole or affected only a part of the body. Mixing healthy and non-healthy skin on one body was unclean.

The rules set up in the time of Moses were still in force during Jesus’ life. People with skin lesions were required to stay away from others and warn others not to approach them. When a man with leprosy approached Jesus, begging, “If you wish, you can make me clean,” Jesus broke the social and religious rules. He reached out and touched the man, saying, “I will do it. Be made clean.”

The man was healed immediately, we are told. Jesus then sent him to the priest to be examined for any sign of disease. He told the man who was healed to offer the necessary sacrifice of thanksgiving and return to his regular life. Despite Jesus’ order not to tell anyone how he had been healed, the man told everyone he met about it. He was so happy; he couldn’t contain or hide it! Needless to say, people in ever greater numbers hurried to Jesus, asking for healing. (Mk 1:40-45)

We too are called to be channels of healing. Perhaps not the same kinds of physical healing that people received from Jesus’ words or touch. But through our lives and the way we interact with those we meet, healing can and does occur. We don’t always know it has happened. That’s all to the good. Keeps us from getting all puffed up about our good works. But as we reach out in care and respect for others and meet them in their daily joys and struggles, we imitate Christ and bring the Good News to our world. (1 Cor 10:31-11:1)

So, who are the kinds of people we are afraid to touch, whether actually or figuratively? Who do we exclude or require to hide from polite society? Do we welcome children and older people on the autistic spectrum into our gatherings and lives? Do we care for, welcome, and respect children and adults who are not binary in their sexuality, members of the LGBTQ+ community? Do we help new neighbors from other countries to get the services they need and help them get started rebuilding their lives in our communities or do we exclude them? Do we comfort and help those whose loved ones have rejected them? Do we support those whose marriages and families have fallen apart or do we exclude them and their children from our church communities? How do we deal with people who have mental health conditions that affect their daily lives?

There are so many times and places where we meet God’s dearly loved children (ages newborn to the very old). Let’s pray that we have the courage and wisdom to see each as a sister or brother, dearly loved by God our Father and our brother Jesus. In God’s sight, all are worthy of being touched by the healing hand of love. Will our hands be the ones that begin that loving healing?

Readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B

 

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Posted by on Feb 4, 2024

Hard Times Come – Where’s the Lord?

Hard Times Come – Where’s the Lord?

It’s raining again as I write these words. Winter in our area can be very wet or very dry. This year, it’s been relatively dry until recently, but the ground is saturated and water is freely flowing off the coastal mountains and to the ocean. It’s not unusual to get 2 inches or more in 24 hours when the big storms blow in from the ocean. This one is predicted to last 2 or more days, so there will be plenty of runoff!

A song is going through my head as I listen to the rain. “Raindrops keep falling on my head, but that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turning red…” Blessedly, the rain is not leaking through our roof since we got it repaired a few years ago. But the sense of rain as symbol for hard times which will end is also included in that song and resonates with the story of Job.

Job was a good man. He was married. He had children. His business affairs were successful. He was honest. He fulfilled his religious duties willingly. All should have gone well for him. He was doing everything right. The story tells us that the Lord was very pleased with Job.  But one day, while the Lord was speaking with his angels, Satan came among them too. When the Lord pointed out Job and what a wonderful person he was, Satan objected that it was only because all was going well for Job. It would be a different story if Job lost everything.

The Lord didn’t think it would be, so he gave Satan permission to do whatever he pleased with Job, except to kill him. Satan set to work quickly. The large herds of sheep, donkeys, camels, and other work animals he owned were all killed or stolen. A house fell on top of his children and killed them all. Job was devastated, but he spoke the famous words, “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb and naked shall I go back again. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Jb 1:21)

This amazed Satan and pleased the Lord. But Satan persisted, noting that Job had not suffered anything physically himself. The Lord gave Satan permission to cause physical pain but not to kill Job. So Job was afflicted with itchy sores all over his body that caused tremendous pain and suffering. His wife and friends all assumed it was because he had committed some terrible sin that he was being punished this way. Sure, some rain falls in every life, but not so much! Only great sinners would be punished so dramatically according to this way of thinking.

Most of the book details the accusations of Job’s friends and his responses defending himself. Job also calls on God to justify having taken everything away and allowed such suffering to befall him. He begs for relief or death. Job reminds God of his own faithfulness and asks God to respond in kind – with faithfulness. (Jb 7:1-4, 6-7)

Finally, God responds. He reminds Job in a series of undeniable images of his power and Job’s lack of power over much of what happens in life and in the world. Job accepts the fact that God is in charge and has the right to do what God pleases. And the Lord relents and restores Job’s good fortune, granting him a double all he had lost and a life twice as long as normal.

In the story, God then turns to the so-called friends and defends Job as a falsely accused innocent man. The false accusers must apologize to Job, who forgives them.

The book of Job is not to be taken literally. It’s a poem intended to teach something important about the relationship between people and God. People go through hard times. God is aware of the suffering. God will reward and somehow restore those who remain faithful.

As Jesus began his ministry of teaching and healing in Galilee, he did not remain in just one place, working with a few friends and their families. He healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law with the touch of his hand. She got up and began to serve her guests. After an evening of healing many people, Jesus went to bed. But in the morning, Jesus took time to get away and pray. While he was away praying that next day, lots of people had gathered, hoping for healing. But Jesus, strengthened by his time in prayer, knew it was time to move on to another place and again share the good news of the kingdom which he had been sent to proclaim. (Mk 1:29-39)

Some folks were healed. Others had to wait. Many who suffered would never receive the miracle of a return to health. But with the coming of Jesus, healing became a possibility, a hope, a promise. It could take many forms, not just physical restoration. Healing was something deeper than the physical. As in the case of Job, healing includes acceptance of God’s place and our place in the grand scheme of things. God can and will bring healing in many forms to those who trust and follow.

Paul traveled widely, sharing the news of the coming of the kingdom. He gave his testimony freely to all those he met. He didn’t ask them to support him. He didn’t charge for his teaching. He gave it freely because he had received it freely. The encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus changed the course of his life. The call he received led to long journeys, with hardships and eventual death. But he rejoiced that he had been called to share the great news of God’s love and reconciliation with all of humanity. His life of prayer and service gave him strength and hope. (1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23)

It’s raining again, and very windy. Some folks are out in the rain yet. They have no homes in which to rest warmly. Many of us are safely sheltered. We can look at our sisters and brothers and judge their worthiness of respect by whether they are sheltered or not. We can look at those who have traveled far from their homes seeking safety from violence and wonder whether they are worth our attention, welcome, and support. Or we can stretch out our hands to offer help and welcome. To help find healthcare and decent housing and food and education for the children. So much depends on how we look at the rain that falls figuratively on the lives we all live.

Let us pray that our eyes be opened to see the Lord’s hand in the hard times we all experience and reach out to each other in practical care and support, sustained by a life of prayer.

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B

 

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Posted by on Jan 28, 2024

New Ways of Communicating God’s Words

New Ways of Communicating God’s Words

When Moses first met the Lord, it was in the discovery of a bush that was burning but not burning up. The Lord spoke to him from within the burning bush, calling him to return to Egypt where he had been born and lead the Israelites out from slavery there to a new land. Moses, with the help of his brother Aaron, returned to Egypt with the Lord’s message. It took a lot of convincing, but eventually Pharoah allowed them to leave. All of this was accomplished with major signs, including plagues, floods, and the death of the firstborn children of the Egyptians.

When they went out from Egypt, the Lord went with them in a fiery cloud that led them by day and guarded them from behind at night. On Mt. Sinai, the Lord met Moses on the mountain top, again with dramatic weather and signs.

At Horeb, the people finally asked the Lord for less drama. It was frightening to have him always appearing in fire and a thundering voice.

Moses delivered the Lord’s response to them. The Lord promised to send a prophet like himself from among the people, a prophet who would guide them in the future. (Dt 18:15-20)

There were many prophets in the years between Moses and Jesus. These men and women were each called to speak the Lord’s word to their people. In the early years, the prophets were sometimes the leaders of the people. But even after kings had been introduced to rule the nation, prophets were called to speak the Lord’s word, reminding the rulers of the Lord’s ways and calling the people to repentance when they forgot the Lord and followed the gods and traditions of other nations.

Prophets are often described in this general way: The word of the Lord came to the prophet (insert name), saying, “Say to my people, Thus says the Lord…” This fulfilled the promise made by God to the people traveling with Moses in the desert. “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and will put my words into his mouth.”

The role of prophet was well recognized in ancient Israel. Prophets spoke both words of encouragement and words of warning. Whichever it was to be, the Lord was clear about the responsibility of the prophet. Speak. In fact, in Psalm 95, the psalmist reminds us, “Harden not your hearts” as the people did in the desert. Listen to the Lord’s call and obey. (Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9)

When Jesus began teaching in Capernaum after his baptism and the call of his first disciples, he did not follow the typical pattern of a prophet. He spoke with authority, according to Mark. He wasn’t like the scribes who spoke only of what had been taught in and about the Law for centuries. He spoke with authority, from his own experience of God’s love. When one day a man cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Jesus recognized the source of the words as coming from outside the man himself. He ordered the spirit speaking through the man to come out of him. The spirit shook the man and left him, with a loud cry. The man was healed. (Mk 1:21-28)

This authority to command a tormenting spirit to leave a man was new. People had never seen that. Word spread quickly throughout Galilee when this happened. Jesus’ role as a teacher and healer began in earnest. But unlike the earlier prophets, he didn’t begin his teachings with “Thus says the Lord…” He simply said, “The kingdom of heaven is like …” He taught with stories and direct instructions. “Blessed are the peacemakers …” “Blessed are you when…”

Christians recognized that Jesus was more than the prophets who followed Moses as teachers through the centuries. He was a law-giver who spoke God’s word with authority, bringing deeper levels of teaching to those he addressed. In fact, Christians recognize Jesus as the Word of God, speaking with even greater authority than Moses because he is both fully human and fully divine.

After his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven, Jesus’ followers spread the news of his coming and his teachings. His call to serve God above all else and in very practical ways spread throughout the Roman empire.  Those who received his words and became followers of his way of life were challenged to figure out how to do that in their ordinary lives.

They thought that his return would be very soon, of course. Paul was concerned that the regular lives and responsibilities of married men and women might keep them from being focused on serving the Lord. (1 Cor 7:32-35) To a certain extent, this can be the case today as well. However, since the timing of the second coming can’t exactly be predicted, the lesson to be learned is that we include serving and preparing the way of the Lord through our own vocations and lives in our world today. We are still called to be committed to the Lord, first and foremost. For married couples, that includes their commitment to each other and any children entrusted to them. Following the Lord and living a committed relationship with another person are not mutually exclusive.

Today we don’t typically hear prophets speaking to us, “Thus says the Lord…” But we learn from each other, from the insights of men and women through the centuries who have reflected on the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. We share our own experiences with our families and friends. We have the traditions of our faith community and our leaders to help guide our way. We take those traditions and interpret them in new ways as we come to understand human development and the great variety of human experience more deeply.

In the Synod, the people of the Church have been invited to share their insights and concerns together, to begin to glimpse the way the Holy Spirit is leading us today. We pray for the courage to go where we are being led, ever open to the wonder and diversity of the Lord’s people and creation. The process of the Synod is still on-going. We pray for those who will again meet in person later this year to consider and share what we have together learned of God’s love in our current time.

We don’t usually meet the Lord in a burning bush these days. We don’t expect to hear his voice in thunder or in fiery clouds. We hear his voice in the tender concern of others when we are in need of support and understanding. We hear his voice in requests for help from others. We hear his voice in the cries of the poor. We meet the Lord in each other. May we be open to see and hear and also be Christ present for those we meet each day.

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B

 

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Posted by on Jan 21, 2024

Diversity – Broader Than We Expect?

Diversity – Broader Than We Expect?

Each month, Pope Francis asks people around the world to join him in prayer for a particular intention. This month, January 2024, he is asking us to pray for the gift of diversity in the Church. Specifically, his prayer is,

“We pray that the Holy Spirit may help us to recognize the gift of different charisms within the Christian community and to discover the richness of different traditions and rituals in the Catholic Church.”

This prayer is focused on diversity within the Christian community, with its varied history, traditions, and rituals. As a worldwide community, people from multiple traditions, cultural understandings, and expectations all share in the same fundamental set of beliefs and practices. However, the ways those beliefs and practices are expressed can vary dramatically.

When my husband and I were first married, for example, we often found that we were divided by the bonds of a common religion. We were both Catholic from birth and grew up in actively Catholic families and communities. But the specifics of which customs, which saints, and which fundamental requirements and expectations of Catholic life were most important differed in many ways. Northern European Irish/German traditions were different from Mexican-American traditions. It took many years to recognize and anticipate the expected practices from our childhood experience and know which ones were going to be more important to each of us. With experience and many years of practice, we mostly have this worked out, but we still trip up from time to time.

As a Church, we have a long way to go, but the reforms of Vatican II have given a great foundation and permission for us to recognize and value the incarnation of our God within the many cultures of our world. We can now pray for diversity and acceptance of the many charisms, the gifts of the Spirit in our daily lives. We no longer need to demand that all peoples around the world understand or celebrate God’s presence in human history in exactly the same way, nor that they live their lives in the same way.

This struck me as an apt insight when I read the story of Jonah and his arrival in the ancient city of Nineveh with a message from God. (Jon 3:1-5, 10) Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire. It was very large – a three day walk to cross from one side of it to the other. The Assyrians were long-time enemies of the Israelites. They had battled more than once. Assyrians had actually destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel in battle. Many of the people of northern Israel had been killed, many driven into exile. Jonah and others in his community hated the Assyrians. No love was lost between the people of Assyria and the people of Israel.

Imagine Jonah’s surprise and horror when the Lord told him to go and warn the people of the enemy capital that their city was to be destroyed because of their evil behavior. That was exactly what he would have cheered! Destruction of an enemy’s capital, a warning not to mess with one’s own God – who could ask for more? And for this to happen without any loss of life among one’s own people? Fantabulous!

But no. God wanted the people of Nineveh to be warned, to have a chance to escape this horror. So, he called Jonah. Jonah tried to escape his task, boarding a ship to cross the Mediterranean, but that didn’t work out. He ended up in the belly of a whale for a bit, after having been tossed overboard by the crew and then being deposited back on the shore where he started. At that point, he gave up and headed to Nineveh. Entering the city, he began to proclaim its coming destruction. In only one day, the city and its leaders took heed. They proclaimed a fast, put on simple, uncomfortable, penitential clothing (sackcloth), and changed their behavior. With this quick response, there was no longer any reason to punish the city, so God relented and all was well.

Was Jonah happy? Not at all! He had hoped the city would be destroyed. He went away and pouted for a while. But again, how he got over it is another story for another day.

What strikes me about this story is that God did not pay attention only to the people of one culture, with one set of traditions. God cared about the people of Nineveh too, enough to send an unwilling prophet to call them to repentance. Though not members of the Chosen People, they were also a people about whom God cared enough to call them to reform and live.

The city of Nineveh still exists. It has a different name now. We call it Mosul. And God still cares for the people of Mosul and the rest of the Middle East, with all of their different traditions.

How about Jesus? Were his followers all from the same background or occupation? Not really. Some were fishermen. One was a tax collector. One was involved in politics – on the more revolutionary side. Saul/Paul was called after the resurrection. He was a Pharisee, an educated man, a student of the Law, who was active in persecution of the early followers of Jesus.

Mark tells us about the call of Peter, Andrew, James, and John. (Mk 1:14-20) They were fishermen from two different families who were working with their families along the shore of the Sea of Galilee when they met Jesus. Jesus himself was a carpenter, a tradesman. All were men who were accustomed to working and supporting themselves and their families. When Jesus walked by the boats as they were cleaning up after fishing – repairing nets, getting everything ready for the next day’s work – he called them to follow him. Amazingly, without hesitation, they left their nets and followed him. They didn’t reject their families or communities, but they left the nets and fishing to follow and learn from him. His other followers also left their jobs immediately when he called them. There was something compelling about the man and his invitation. He was open to them, just as they were and with their own particular backgrounds and family stories. Others who followed him but weren’t in the inner circle were also a diverse group. Women, men, well-to-do, middle-class, and poor. All were represented among Jesus’ followers. He was also recognized as a special person by non-Jews. Remember the Roman centurion whose son was healed by Jesus?

The followers of Jesus were a diverse lot. Jesus may initially have thought he was sent only for the Hebrew people, but his encounters with the Samaritan woman at the well and the Syrophoenician woman who begged for healing for her child opened his eyes to the fact that God cares for all people, not just those who worshiped at the temple in Jerusalem. God cares for humans in all our diversity.

That being the case, when do we need to start welcoming and treasuring our diversity? Right now.

St. Paul reminded the folks in Corinth that time is passing quickly. (1 Cor 7:29-31) It is still passing quickly. We don’t know the day or the hour when our time will end. We don’t know when the Lord will come again. We must live the calling of our life now, welcoming the diverse members of the human community whom we meet along the way.

We don’t have time to hold on to old ways or restrictions. The freedom of the children of God allows us to step beyond our regular restrictions and expectations. We can be open to see God’s hand in the lives of others who are not part of our immediate family or community. We can see God’s face in the immigrant, the undocumented, the hungry, the little ones in our churches and schools who are still learning the social rules, the neighbor across the back fence, the person who cuts ahead of us in line at the grocery store, the addict begging on the street. God is present in each one. God loves the diversity of humanity and hopes we are free enough to enjoy it too.

It’s going to take time for all of us to feel comfortable with the myriad forms of diversity among our fellow human sisters and brothers. Our own cultural traditions and explanations of how-things-are will continue to jump to the forefront when we encounter other ways of being and of doing things. I pray that we can become open to listen deeply to those we meet and hear the goodness within each, which is reaching out to meet the goodness within us. When cultural practices diminish the freedom and well-being of others, it’s important to question them. The same is as true for practices in our culture as for those in other cultures. However, we must always remember that God is the creator of all and through all shines forth in marvelous beauty and colorful light.

May the Holy Spirit, still at work in the Church and in the larger Christian community, lead us to newly recognize, cherish, and support the many gifts, talents, and richness of our many world traditions and varied rituals. May we be unafraid to see our expectations of roles and expression of our deepest selves be broadened by exposure to other ways of life. The diversity is greater than we might imagine. The Holy Spirit will lead us as we explore the marvels of God’s human creation. We just need to be willing to open our hearts and see.

Readings for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B

 

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Posted by on Jan 14, 2024

Called by God to be …

Called by God to be …

Members of Christ, Temples of the Holy Spirit, Called by God.

Each of us is especially treasured by God, created to be unique, and given gifts to share freely. Yet, since we are born into families and cultures with characteristics and expectations that are shared by many others, we don’t always recognize our uniqueness or our inherent value. We hear and observe that we are like our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins in many ways. We join together with others of our general age and interests, finding comfort and encouragement from our peers, as well as challenges that make us examine our own values and require us to make choices that are not always easy.

When and how do we hear the Lord’s voice calling us to the unique service only we can give? Sometimes the call is obvious. Often it is a subtle urging and growing sense that a certain path is to be followed or that a particular dream is ours to bring to our world.

Samuel, for example, was still very young when he was called. His mother was already old and barren when during a visit to the temple she asked the Lord for a child. The next year when her son was born, she recognized the great gift she had received. She and her husband consecrated their son to serve the Lord at the temple when he was old enough to leave them. He worked with Eli, a priest who served at the temple, learning how to serve in that role and care for the Ark of the Covenant which was there. God was present among his people where the Ark was present.

One night, Samuel was awakened by a voice calling his name. (1 Sam 3:3b-10, 19) Naturally, he assumed Eli needed something and hurried to him. Eli woke up when Samuel came asking what was needed and sent him back to bed. The same thing happened three times. By the third time, Eli figured out what was going on. He told Samuel that if he heard the voice again, he was to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” When the voice awakened him a fourth time, Samuel did as he had been instructed. The Lord spoke to him directly and called him to service as a prophet, one who would speak the Lord’s words to the people and lead them in the Lord’s service. This was before there were kings in Israel. The prophet’s words were intended to be taken as the Lord’s guidance for what to do as a people, in good times and in bad.

No one expected Samuel to become a prophet. He was not in any sort of training program for this role. He was still very young. No one would have thought to listen to his words as those of the Lord. Yet that is what happened when the Lord chose him for the role. He served for many years as the Lord’s prophet. Eventually, when the people were determined to have a king like the neighboring peoples did, he voiced the Lord’s warning that kings were over-rated and would not be a great idea for them. True as this turned out to be, the people were determined, so with the Lord’s help, Samuel selected and anointed Israel’s first king. When that one didn’t work out well, the Lord sent Samuel to anoint David as successor to Saul. But that’s another story.

Bottom line, the Lord called Samuel. Samuel didn’t go looking for the job!

Two of John the Baptist’s disciples were standing with him one day when Jesus walked by them. (Jn 1:35-42) John commented, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” What a strange thing to say about a person, but John had never pretended that his role was to do anything other than to call people to repentance and to prepare the community for the coming of the Anointed One, the one sent by God to restore the ancient relationship between God and humans. By John’s time, most expected someone who would lead the country to freedom from domination by foreign powers, but still, he recognized Jesus and pointed him out to his own followers.

Andrew and the other disciple followed Jesus. He noticed them and asked them, “What are you looking for?” Notice that he spoke first. When they asked where he was staying, he invited them to come and see. After a few hours of conversation, Andrew left and got his brother Simon. He told Simon they had found the Messiah and brought him to Jesus. Again, Jesus took the initiative. He greeted Simon by giving him a new name, Peter, the rock.

These three men heard the call of the Lord when they met Jesus. At least two of them had been looking for the Messiah whom John had foretold, but they had no idea he would show up the way he did in their lives, inviting them to come and have a chat. Simon had no idea his future would be completely changed when his brother urged him to come and visit with Jesus.

Many, many other people have heard the Lord’s call through the centuries. The traditions and expectations of their cultures have shaped their understanding and practices when interacting with the Lord. Sometimes the cultural patterns and behaviors have not been compatible with their new life as sisters and brothers of the Lord, children of God. This was the case in Corinth, where St. Paul admonished the new Christians to recognize and remember that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor 6:13c-15a, 17-20) They are not to behave as if there were nothing special or sacred about them.  God has loved them and claimed them at a high price, the sacrifice of his Son.

God calls each of us too. Some have said that God doesn’t call people directly anymore, but in my experience, that is incorrect. God does call people. Sometimes the call is subtle. Sometimes it’s more direct. Sometimes we say no. We’re always free to do that.  When we do, God has been known to chuckle and say, “OK, do it your way!” If you ever hear God say this, do yourself a favor, try it his way! It’s sure to work out better in the long run.

We are called – to be members of Christ’s body, temples of the Holy Spirit, and bearers of the love of God into our world here and now. It can be a daunting challenge. But when the chips are down, none of us is alone. The Lord is always with us, inviting us to stop by and have a chat or to join him on the road for a chat. On we go… together!

Readings for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B

 

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