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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 Jul 17, 2022

Choosing the Better Part

Choosing the Better Part

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choose the better part!

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

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Posted by on Jul 10, 2022

Something Very Near to You

Something Very Near to You

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is written in the Law?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would it be closer for you or me? Hmmm.

How can all of this be possible?

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by on Jul 3, 2022

Up from the Ruins – The Kingdom of God is Here

Up from the Ruins – The Kingdom of God is Here

During the past few weeks, the divisions among peoples and nations have once again come starkly into focus in the United States and around the world. Recent decisions by the Supreme Court have upset precedents that had long seemed established. Revelations regarding the events on January 6, 2021 make clear the potential fragility of the American system of self-governance. War continues to rage in Ukraine. Other conflicts smolder around the world. Political parties bicker over what needs to be done and how to do it. Fires, earthquakes, drought, and famine plague many around the world. And COVID-19 continues to cause illness and death.

We might be tempted to feel sorry for ourselves – a “woe is me” type of moment, perhaps. Weren’t things always better in the past? But no, they weren’t. Things have always been hard at times. Not exclusively hard all the time, mind you. Things have also been wonderful, maybe mostly wonderful. Yet the wonderful times have always also been punctuated by harder times that make people grateful for the boring, everyday-ness of most of life.

Through it all, God is present, working from within the hard times through ordinary people, to bring about the happier times and restore peace among peoples and families. The Kingdom of God is here, rising from the ruins of broken relationships and societies.

On this Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the prophet Isaiah (66:10-14c) speaks the Lord’s words to the people of Israel at the end of their period of exile in Babylon. They are returning to their own land, to cities that have been destroyed and a temple that is in ruins. Ancient warfare left cities leveled, just as we are seeing today in Ukraine. It took a bit longer, perhaps, but the cities were destroyed and the land laid waste. The conquerors wanted nothing to be left to those whom they defeated.

So now the people return to their devastated homeland and what does the Lord say? “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her… I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river … as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you…” God is present with the people. Their city will rise again. God will comfort them like a mother nursing her child. Intimately. Tenderly. With love and dedication. Up close and personal. Sweet and filling!

Isaiah’s words are for us too. Our world has been turned upside down in some ways. Yet the Kingdom of God is here because God is here with us in the midst of the challenging times. “The Lord’s power shall be known to his servants.”

In a different, happier time for Israel, the psalmist rejoiced at God’s deeds (Ps 66) – “Shout joyfully to God, all the earth.” God has acted with power to protect the children of Adam. The sea was changed to dry land, a passage opened through the river (Jordan). The Lord is present with his people. “Blessed be God who refused me not my prayer or his kindness!”

The theme is continued in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (6:14-18). The reading for this week is from the end of the letter. He has presented his argument about the reasons for not requiring Gentiles to become Jews before becoming followers of Jesus and members of the Christian community. He states his position clearly. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything in terms of salvation. The only thing that matters is to become a new creation, based on the cross of the Lord and our sharing in the redemption it brought. Paul notes that he has himself suffered physically because of his faithfulness in proclaiming Jesus’ death and resurrection. He ends his letter with a wish of blessing for the members of this community. It is a blessing familiar to us even today. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters.”

Jesus, too, shares this message. “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” St. Luke (10:1-12, 17-20) tells us that Jesus selected seventy-two of his disciples and sent them ahead of him to the towns he was planning to visit. They went in groups of two. He gave them very specific instructions about what to take with them, what to say, where to stay, what to eat, and what to do if people in a town didn’t welcome them. They were to cure the sick and share the message of the coming of the kingdom of God wherever they went.

Jesus wasn’t living in a free and independent country. He was living in a conquered land, with overlords who took whatever they could get from the land and the people. Large numbers of people grew cash crops, for use by the empire, and had little left for themselves and their families. Soldiers could force people to carry their gear. Tax collectors were allowed to take as much as they could get, even above and beyond what was due. Anyone who opposed the Romans would be killed. It was not a great time in Israel. Yet he had arrived – the kingdom of God was at hand! His disciples were charged with sharing that news.

It’s interesting to note that Moses also selected seventy-two elders to help with administration of the camp and keeping order as the people moved through the desert in the years before they entered the Promised Land. Perhaps that’s part of the reason Jesus selected seventy-two disciples to alert people to the coming of God’s kingdom. This time of his coming was one long awaited.

The disciples returned with great rejoicing. Their mission had been well received and “even the demons” had obeyed them because of the power of Jesus’ name. Jesus notes their success and cautions that even more important than this power they have experienced is the fact that their own names are known by God in the heavenly kingdom.

In the midst of the troubles and hardships experienced by the Chosen People at the time of Jesus, the ruins of the former glory of their nation, the Kingdom of God has arrived.

Do we believe that God’s kingdom is present here and now as well? When things go differently than we would have chosen, can we trust that God will stand beside us in the ruins of our hopes and dreams and lift us up to the joy of the new Jerusalem and the kingdom? Will we let the Lord cradle us as a mother cradles her infant, and will we nurse as a well-loved child, secure and trusting the one who provides all we need? Will we have the courage to go forth and proclaim the love of the Lord and the Kingdom of God in our own world through our patient work to care for the most vulnerable among us? Will our commitment truly be to support children, families, women, immigrants, refugees, non-binary folks, the elderly, those with special needs? This is where God is present. In the “ruins” of social systems that favor the few and are willing to discard the rest, we find the Lord present and working.

The Kingdom of God is here, opened for us by the coming of Jesus.

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Posted by on Jun 26, 2022

“All er Nothin”

“All er Nothin”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by on Feb 27, 2022

From the Fullness of the Heart

From the Fullness of the Heart

“From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45) 

On this Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the readings remind us that wisdom is not always evident in human affairs. This is a timely reminder as we deal with the reality of war in Ukraine. In the Diocese of Monterey, CA, Bishop Daniel Garcia has asked us to use a different set of Eucharistic prayers this Sunday than the usual ones. There are four ordinary Eucharistic prayers that are typically used on Sunday. But there are others that are for times of special need or celebration. Any of these can be used equally validly for the Mass. The prayers Bishop Garcia has asked be used are for times of war.

Ordinarily, there are readings that are used for each day’s Mass. We have three different sets of readings that are repeated over a period of three years. However, the Masses for special purposes or times may have their own set or sets of readings. I don’t know which ones will be used in parishes around the diocese or around the world today. However, I know which ones are the “usually scheduled” ones and another set that may be used. Fortunately, they have themes that make sense together. So, here are some thoughts about them.

The first of the regular readings is from the Book of Sirach (27:4-7). Sirach is one of the books of Wisdom literature in the Bible. It is not always included in Protestant Bibles. The book includes a collection of proverbs and observations of human behavior and its consequences. These are drawn from events and practices that would have been familiar to the people hearing them. Sirach notes that it is in times of upheaval and trial that strength is developed (as in the firing of pottery). When grain is shaken through a sieve, the grain becomes usable and the husks are removed. The reading concludes with the observation that until a person speaks, there is no way to know their character, so they should never be praised first!

St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (15:54-58) continues the contrast of the earthly, mortal, corruptible world (described as clothes) with immortality. We have been hearing about various aspects of this for the past few weeks. It is to the realm of immortality that the promises of God pertain. Death is not the end. It is “swallowed up in victory,” a victory received through Jesus, Our Lord. Therefore, he calls upon his sisters and brothers in faith to be firm and steadfast in the work of the Lord. This labor from the heart will not be in vain.

In the final reading of the regular set, St. Luke continues the Sermon on the Plain (6:39-45). Jesus asks a series of questions of his listeners. “Can a blind person guide a blind person?” “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” He also offers some commonsense observations. “A good tree does not bear rotten fruit…” “People do not pick figs from thorn bushes…”

Jesus concludes this set of observations with the statement, “For from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”

It seems to me that this is the heart of the matter. When we make choices based on the values of the world around us, we may find some success or admiration, but it will come for the wrong reasons. As we all know, beauty fades, styles change, success eventually ends. What is it that will remain? What will our families and friends remember about us as they prepare to lay us to our final rest?

Alternate readings for this day touch on many of the same themes. The story of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis (4:3-10) describes the result of envy and anger between two brothers. Both offer gifts to the Lord, but when Abel’s gift is burned the smoke goes up. When Cain’s gift is burned, the smoke goes down. Cain is angry that his gift was not received by the Lord. The Lord warns him about the danger of his anger, but he does not listen. He invites his brother to go out into the field with him. They quarrel and Abel is killed. The Lord comes looking for them and asks Cain where his brother is. Cain responds, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, the Lord already knows. He tells Cain that Abel’s blood cries out from the earth and banishes Cain from the land. Cain must travel to other lands and live among the people there.

(Note: this is not historical writing. This story is to help explain conflict among people and nations. Despite being one of only three sons named as children of Adam and Eve, there are peoples in other nations among whom he is to go to live. Not intended as historical fact! A story to teach us something important. An example of wisdom literature.)

St. James (4:1-10) warns the early Christian community of the dangers of envy and struggles for worldly pleasures. These are the source of anger, fights, quarrels, wars. These are not the signs of God’s friends. Indeed, they are signs of those opposed to God’s ways. “God resists the proud but bestows his favor on the lowly.” James calls the community to turn back to God with prayer and humility – to purify their hearts and be humble. Then the Lord will raise them on high.

Finally, St. Matthew, in his account of the Sermon on the Mount (5:20-24), presents Jesus’ teaching against anger. “You have heard the commandment … ‘You shall not commit murder.’ What I say to you is: everyone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement.”

These are strong words. Those who are angry must reconcile with their opponents, their brothers and sisters, before bringing their gifts to the altar. It’s the reality of what is in our hearts that matters. It is in the heart that the Lord meets us and we meet the Lord.

And so, we return to our beginning verse, “From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”

May we remember this as we enter into Lent later this week. May we remember this as we watch the war in Ukraine and pray for peace. May we remember this as we deal with the ups and downs of our own lives in community, in family, in work and play.

“From the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” May our words and actions be those of peace.

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Posted by on Feb 20, 2022

Bearing the Image of the Heavenly One

Bearing the Image of the Heavenly One

“Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.” (1 Cor 15:49)

St. Paul, in his first letter to the community in Corinth, provides a theme for the readings of the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. You will recall that there had been a great controversy in Corinth over the question of resurrection from the dead. Some said only Jesus rose, the rest of his followers would not rise. Others said only those who never died physically would have eternal life. Paul insisted that Jesus was the first human to rise, but he would not be the last. He is simply the “first fruit” of those who would rise. In the passage immediately before today’s reading, he speaks of the different kinds of bodies of various animals and of the transformation of seeds into grown plants. He explains that transformation from one type of body to another is common in nature and so should not be unreasonable to expect. Our earthly bodies, like those of the first human, Adam, will be transformed like those of the last Adam, Jesus, whose body became a spiritual one. This last Adam’s body was heavenly in origin.

Paul’s final statement in the set of parallel comparisons here between earthly physical humans and heavenly spiritual humans is a reminder of the great promise we have received from our Father. “We shall also bear the image of the heavenly one,” the risen Christ.

When and how does this transformation happen? Is there some sort of magic at the moment of death? What about those whose lives have not been exemplary but who have a great epiphany and die believing in the Good News of God’s love for all? Is it fair that they should have an equal share in the Kingdom? Can it really be true that the Kingdom is open to all? When does the Kingdom begin? Where is the Kingdom of God? Is it limited to our universe? Do we go somewhere else? So many, many questions have arisen since the Resurrection and first appearance of Jesus to his followers.

One thing is certain, none of us can earn an entrance into the Kingdom. That is critical to remember. No matter how well we live our lives, no matter whether we are blessed with earthly success and its trappings or are the poorest of the poor, none of us is guaranteed anything except the love of God. Yet the promise remains. “Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.”

I suggest that the other readings this day offer a glimpse into this mystery.

Saul was the first king of Israel, anointed by Samuel, the prophet and judge of Israel, at the request of the people. Israel had long been under attack by the Philistines who lived to the west of their land. The Judges, including Samuel, had led the defense of Israel. But surrounding peoples had kings and the Israelites believed they would be stronger with a King. Samuel, following the Lord’s instructions, anointed Saul as their king. Later, Saul fell out of favor with the Lord because he and his men took animals and other valuable things from one of the enemy peoples whom they battled. They had been instructed to destroy everything living, but they kept the valuable things for themselves.

Samuel was then instructed to anoint Saul’s successor. A shepherd boy named David, son of Jesse of Bethlehem, was the one chosen as the Lord’s anointed to succeed Saul. Saul and David had a long history together, but as David became a popular leader in war against the Philistines and other enemies of Israel, Saul became jealous and decided to get rid of his rival. Saul didn’t know David had been anointed as next king already, and he didn’t want to take any chances his own sons would not succeed him.

As our story begins today, Saul has taken a break from the fight with the Philistines and gone after David in the desert of Ziph. (1 Sam 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23) Saul has 3,000 men with him. David has about 600. David is badly outnumbered and things don’t look good.

Then one night, as Saul and his army slept, David and his men found where they were camping. David and Abishai slipped into the camp, into the very tent in which Saul and his soldiers were sleeping. Saul’s spear was thrust into the ground near his head, ready for use at the slightest danger.

Abishai whispered to David that he could easily kill Saul with one thrust of that spear. But David refused the offer. “Do not harm him, for who can lay hands on the Lord’s anointed and remain unpunished?” Instead, David and Abishai took the spear and a water jug from beside Saul’s head and left the tent. Amazingly, no one in the camp stirred.

David and his men retreated to a hillside far across the plain from where Saul and his men were camped. David called out at dawn to Saul and his men. He spoke to Saul as well in a section of the account that is not included in this reading. Saul invited him to come to the camp and offered not to hurt him, but David kept his distance. Instead, he replied “Here is the king’s spear. Let an attendant come over and get it … Today, though the Lord delivered you into my grasp, I would not harm the Lord’s anointed.” Saul and his men retreated from chasing David. David and his men retreated into other territories and battled against enemies of Israel from the lands in which they were now living and raising families.

Eventually, David became King of Israel and established a dynasty of rulers. But those stories are for another time and place.

David’s refusal to harm his mortal enemy is the image that speaks to me today. This is the kind of behavior that is characteristic of God’s Kingdom as envisioned by Jesus and the early Christian community – a foretaste of the image of the heavenly kingdom and its inhabitants.

The Psalmist sings of the mercy and kindness of the Lord (Ps 103). The Lord’s willingness to forgive, heal ills, save his people from destruction and crown them with kindness and compassion. Again, a different response from the typical earthly human response to bad behavior or disobedience.

Finally we get to the Gospel, where St. Luke shares Jesus’ words with us. (Lk 6:27-38) This is a continuation of his instructions in what is known as the Sermon on the Plain. Jesus has already spoken of what makes people blessed and warned of the dangers of having earthly success and acclaim. Now he gets specific about behavior.

His is a culture in which Honor and Shame are defining characteristics of human interaction and the social standing of individuals and families. Families, large extended families, are the fundamental social unit. Individual members matter little as individuals. Their importance is as members of the larger extended family. What each person says or does contributes to the perception of the family as honorable or not. Bad behavior or failure to respond to insults from others is shameful and reflects badly on the honor of the entire group. People are killed for behaving shamefully. Honor is a REALLY big deal.

Now along comes Jesus with a totally different set of expectations. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you … to the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well…” These are totally counter-cultural expectations. It would be absolutely shameful not to respond in kind to an insult such as being slapped in the face. Conquering armies and occupying forces might strike a person with impunity, but an honorable person would only put up with that behavior because they are members of a conquered nation and then only from those soldiers and government officials. Whenever possible, efforts would be made to get even or overthrow them.

But Jesus changes the lens through which we are to look. Yes, humans would respond in kind, but God does not. He points out that even those far from the Kingdom forgive those who forgive them, love those who love them. Even sinners and Romans do that, for heaven’s sake! Those who are part of God’s kingdom must love their enemies and do good to them. They must lend without expectation of return. They must be merciful as their Father is merciful. It is in refusing to judge others and in forgiving and sharing generously that we become open to receive forgiveness and acceptance and everything else we truly need. As we learn to do this, the abundance of gifts which we will be able to receive from the Father will be unlimited – “good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing … For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

Wow! Good news? Certainly worth pondering. The world might be a very different place if we all lived this way.

How open am I to trying to live this way? Does it matter if I’m the only one trying? If I live this way, would it be easier for others to live this way too? Can I remember a time when I received forgiveness that was totally unwarranted? How did I feel when that happened? Can I offer that tender gift to others now?

We bear the image of the earthly Adam/Eve, our first parents as humans. Now we are called by the Spirit to grow into the image of the second Adam, our brother Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one of God, the heavenly one. Together we go – onward on the journey of transformation, bearing the image of the heavenly one.

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