Pages Menu
RssFacebook
Categories Menu

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.

Read More

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

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Posted by on Feb 6, 2022

With God It’s All Personal!

With God It’s All Personal!

“Nothing personal, but …” These few words so often come before a comment criticizing an action or an idea just expressed that it’s hard not to take them personally. “Nothing personal, but I just don’t see how anyone could (insert your pet peeve).” If I’ve just expressed even a willingness to consider the notion or action named in the pet peeve, I find it difficult not to take it personally when I hear those first words. How about you?

When I looked at the readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, it struck me that God doesn’t work this way. God speaks to each of us personally. With God everything is a part of a personal relationship. This includes waking up in the morning, our reactions to the events of our day, the gifts and challenges we experience along the way, and our going to sleep again at night. The entire day is part of God’s personal gift to each of us.

Isaiah lived in the time of King Uzziah. King Uzziah ruled over Israel for more than 50 years. He was a powerful ruler and military leader who, by the time of his death, had become overly proud and at least once even took the role of the high priest in offering sacrifice in the temple. King Uzziah died in 792 BCE.

Isaiah tells the story of his call to prophecy by situating it in a specific time-period (Is 6:1-2a, 3-8). “In the year King Uzziah died…” The heavens opened and Isaiah saw the Lord seated on his throne, his garments filling the temple of the skies, and Seraphim guarding the entire temple. The angels cried out “Holy is the Lord of hosts, all the earth is filled with his glory!” At these words, the house shook and filled with smoke.

Shaking of the earth is a sign of the presence of the Lord – one of the physical manifestations that ancient peoples took as indicators of divine action in the world. Isaiah believed he was about to die – no one could see the face of the Lord and live. He cried out in fear, knowing that he was a person with human limitations and unworthy to see or speak to/for the Lord.

One of the seraphim cleansed Isaiah’s lips with an ember from the altar, purifying him to be in the Lord’s presence. When the Lord then asked, “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah was ready and willing to volunteer. This was his call to serve as a prophet – a personal invitation from the Lord and a ready response to serve.

St. Paul also received a personal invitation to serve as an apostle of the Lord. Many people were disciples of Jesus. Many people shared their faith with family, friends, neighbors, and others. But not all were called apostles. Apostle means “one who is sent.” Very few of Jesus’ early followers were called apostles. There were the original twelve, one of whom betrayed him. There was one, Matthias, elected after the resurrection to replace Judas Iscariot. Mary Magdalene was known as the Apostle to the Apostles, because Jesus sent her on Easter morning with a message to the eleven remaining members of that close circle of the twelve followers. And then there was Paul, who became known as the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul today reminds us of Jesus’ Resurrection and the promise of life for all of us that comes because of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. He speaks of the witnesses of the resurrection and reminds the people of Corinth that many of those witnesses are still alive. Then he speaks of his own calling to be an apostle.

Remember that Paul (then called Saul) was one of those who persecuted the Followers of the Way (Christians before they got that name). He was a Pharisee and a teacher of the Law. He wanted to root out this false teaching, to get rid of all who professed these beliefs. He was on his way to Damascus in Syria to arrest people there and return them to Jerusalem for trial and execution if they refused to renounce their faith in Jesus.

Along the way, he met the Risen Christ. It changed his life. A light flashed from the sky and a voice boomed out, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asked the one whose voice he heard, “Who are you, sir?” and was told, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.” Jesus instructed him to continue on into the city and wait to be told what to do. Blind and disoriented, he did as he was told. In Damascus, a Christian leader named Ananais received instructions in a vision telling him to go to Saul to heal and teach him. (Acts 9:1-19)

Paul became one of the best known Apostles in history and we read from his letters during most of the year in our Sunday liturgies. Yet his call was personal. Jesus spoke personally to him. Saul/Paul responded to a personal invitation.

And then there was the call of the first of Jesus’ twelve closest friends, the ones who came to be called Apostles. (L5:1-11)

Simon was a fisherman in Capernaum. He worked nights, fishing in the Sea of Galilee. He and other fishermen were washing their nets and preparing to go home. They hadn’t caught anything all night. They were tired and discouraged. Then along came Jesus and their lives were changed.

Jesus was teaching and healing in Capernaum. A large crowd was pressing around him and he found himself at the shore. He asked Simon to take him on his boat out into the water a little ways, so he could teach without people pushing against him. He sat down in the boat and began to teach. When he finished, he asked Simon to take the boat out a bit more and drop the nets again.

Simon knew it was a fool’s errand. Fish didn’t bite during the day, nor did they swim in groups where they would get caught in nets. But he took the boat out a bit anyway and did as Jesus asked. To his surprise the net was filled to bursting with fish. There were so many they couldn’t load all of them into the boat. They had to call for help from other boats.

Simon realized Jesus had to be someone special. His fishing partners, James and John, were also there and had the same astonished reaction that he did. He fell down on his knees in front of Jesus and asked him to leave in peace – ordinary folks had no business dealing with the Lord or the Lord’s messengers! Instead, Jesus reassured him, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

Simon, James, and John took their boat back to the shore and left everything right there. They followed Jesus for the rest of his days, from Galilee all the way to Jerusalem. After the Resurrection, these three men, called by a personal invitation, continued as Apostles to the rest of their community and the world.

In each of these readings, we see the Lord personally calling an individual. In each case, the individual responded and followed in witness to what they had experienced and known of the Lord.

These calls of individuals have continued throughout history, even into our times. Sometimes we think they are only for the very holy or the remarkable, or the very brave, or…. But actually, they come to each one of us. Some are called to do great and very public things. Some are called to live what seem like very ordinary lives. For some the call is dramatic. For others the call comes gently and over time. But each of us is called. Each of us is known personally by our God. Each of us is deeply, deeply loved and cherished, just as we are, by our God. And each of us is called to share that love with our world.

Today let’s reflect on the call we have received from our God. When have we heard the voice of the Lord? When have we seen the Lord’s actions in our own lives or those of our family and friends? When have we known the consolation of the Lord’s presence in tough times? When have we heard the Lord’s chuckle as we realize once again that he has just been waiting for us to notice something important? When have we known the deep consolation of receiving forgiveness for times we’ve really messed up and done something wrong?

We are all called. It’s always personal with God. And it always involves our community and our world. God cares personally about each and every one of us. With God it’s all personal!

Read More

Posted by on Nov 28, 2021

A Time for Hope and Expectation – The Lord is Coming

A Time for Hope and Expectation – The Lord is Coming

One of the wonderful things about being a mother and grandmother is the chance to read stories to children. So many wonderful stories I have read to children at bedtime and in the car as we were traveling – stories that I would never have even known existed had I remained always in the adult world. Just last night I sat up and re-read the final chapters of The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan. It is a story I read with my daughter when it was new. Now my grandson has just finished reading it and I re-read it so I could talk with him about it as he enjoyed it for the first time. (Besides that, it’s a really good story with a lot of unexpected twists and turns that I had long ago forgotten.)

The Lightning Thief is the first of several series of stories that take as their inspiration Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian mythologies – the stories of the gods and their interactions among themselves and with humans. This particular story is about a boy who discovers he is a demi-god whose father is Poseidon, god of the seas. A favorite tool of one of the gods has been stolen and a war is about to break out among them if the tool is not found and returned. Among the gods, it is widely believed that our hero has stolen the tool. The story goes from there as he discovers who he is, what has been stolen, who is believed to have it, where it actually is, and whether it can be recovered in time to prevent the war. A marvelously impossible and improbable quest for a group of children in middle school to engage upon, it is an engrossing story for the reader to share.

This story came to mind this morning as I was thinking about the readings for the First Sunday of Advent. It’s a brand new year for us as Church and once again we hear apocalyptic writings of things that are to come at the end of time. We’ve had a lot of these readings lately. One year ends with them and the new year begins with them.

Why do we have this kind of writing anyway? Why not just state clearly that at some future date the universe will end. At some date each of us will end our lives here. At some point we will meet the Lord. Earthquakes happen. Climate fluctuates over time. Storms come and go, both literally and figuratively. And so forth…

We have these kinds of stories because our understanding of the world is incomplete. Humans have existed for thousands of years, but much of what we know of how the geology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and inter-personal relations behind our daily experience operate has only been uncovered in the last few hundred years. There is still much we don’t know or understand.

As an anthropologist, I turn to a concept that I find helps explain our human use of stories to make sense of what we don’t understand or can’t find words to express. Anthropologists speak of “explanatory systems” that take a physical or social reality and place it within a larger context.

Humans wonder “why” things happen the way they do. Why do we have earthquakes? Why do we have storms? Why is the weather good some days and terrible other days? Why do people care for each other? Why do we have enemies? Why do some people die young? Why do old people spend so much time telling the same stories over and over? In the words of a song originally written by Woody Guthrie and adapted for children by Anne Murray, Why Oh Why, we ask again and again “Why does… Why can’t… Why won’t…” Eventually, the question becomes, “Why won’t you answer my question?” and the response is, “Because I don’t know the answer, Good night, good night.”

We don’t know the answers, so we humans tell stories and sing songs.

In our Judeo-Christian tradition, there is only one God. There are no demi-gods as there are in so many other traditions. Our God speaks through humans. Our God speaks directly to humans. God acts in human history. God loves humans and all of creation so much that God enters into creation as a human being. As a human being, God experiences a complete human life, including the joys and sorrows of life and death with family and friends, unexpected happy surprises, hope, love, suffering, fear, and death.

Yet there are things that happen in our lives and history that are hard to explain. For our ancestors in faith, the answer was clear. God intervened. In times of war, God acted to protect the armies of God’s people. When the people were not faithful to their agreement (the Covenant), God punished them by allowing their enemies to conquer and send them into exile. Yet always, God was there, ready to forgive and bring them back to a good relationship between humans and their God.

The apocalyptic literature read today tells symbolically of this relationship. Jeremiah (33:14-16) recalls the promise God made to King David that a savior would rise from his descendants and do what was right in the land. The country would be secure and the capital city, Jerusalem, site of the temple in which God dwelt in a special way among the people, would become known as “The Lord is our justice.” The people are in exile in Babylon, but the promise is made yet again. There is a reason for hope and expectation of a better future.

Our Gospel story is told by St. Luke, a man who was not part of Jesus’ original circle of friends. Yet Luke (21:25-28, 34-36) has heard and tells the story of Jesus’ description of the coming end of time, when the Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven. We heard this story from St. Mark two weeks ago. Luke encourages his readers to be awake, vigilant at all times, prayerful for the strength to remain faithful when things are going badly around us. Nations and peoples, and even the physical world itself, will be in disarray, but we can be assured that redemption is at hand. It’s a time for hope and expectation of the coming of the Son of Man – the one who saves us.

The early Christian community expected the second coming of Jesus very soon after the Resurrection. After all, the final reconciliation between humans and God had been achieved through Jesus’ death and resurrection. St. Paul (1 Thes 3:12-4:2) also expected the second coming to be imminent, but in the meanwhile, it was important to live a life of loving care as a community. He reminds the people of Thessalonica to behave themselves! He asks the Lord to increase the love they have for each other and strengthen their hearts, so they will be holy and ready when God comes with all his holy ones.

We too live in difficult times. Our world is filled with strife. We argue over immigration, vaccinations, mask mandates, borders, national sovereignty, taxation, the role of government, and on and on. How do we as a Christian community live in love for and with each other? How do we deal with our brothers and sisters with whom we find ourselves in serious disagreement? How do we find ways to address problems that threaten us all, when we can’t even agree on what has caused them?

I don’t have any easy answers. I’m not sure there are any easy answers. But I know in the depths of my heart that we must continue to respect and love each other. We must care for each other and work to find common ground. We are called as members of Christ’s Body to be one with all the rest of our sisters and brothers, working together to bring the peace of Christ to this world.

Happy New Year. May the Lord’s Peace dwell deep within each of us and shine forth in our lives today and through the year we are just beginning.

Read More

Posted by on Nov 21, 2021

King of the Universe!

King of the Universe!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More

Posted by on Nov 7, 2021

Absolute Trust in the Lord

Absolute Trust in the Lord

“There is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug … when we have eaten it, we shall die.”

The prophet Elijah and a widow star in today’s reading from the book of Kings (1 Kg 17:10-16). Elijah has fled the wrath of Jezebel and Ahab, traveling to the city of Zarephath. Jezebel, as you will recall, has sworn to kill Elijah for his opposition to the decision of Ahab to worship the gods of her people and encourage the people of his kingdom to do the same. One would think Elijah would travel far from any lands connected to Jezebel. But the Lord sent him to the land of Sidon, ruled by Jezebel’s father! (Ever heard the phrase, the Lord’s ways are mysterious?)

Elijah arrives in Zaraphath, hungry, tired, and thirsty. A woman is gathering sticks there. Elijah asks her for a cup of water. When she starts off to get it for him, he asks for something more, a bit of something to eat. It is at this point that her situation becomes clear. She is a widow and has a child. In those days, there was no social safety net. No one was there to help her. Her husband was gone. His family was no longer responsible for her care. Her family had long since given up any responsibility for her. She was on her own. There was no way for her to go out and get a job to support herself. Many women in her situation had no option but to become prostitutes. The lives of these women were short and hard. Their children had no future either. They were left to become beggars, servants, thieves, slaves, or worse!

“Do not be afraid,” says Elijah. These words are so often heard in the scriptures. The Lord will take care of it! He assures her that there will be enough flour and oil for him to have a little cake/bread. The flour and oil will not run out until the rains come again. (This was a time of drought and supplies of food were scarce, making her situation even more precarious.)

We remember this woman because, though she was not a Jew, did not worship or know the Lord, and did not know this man who had come asking for her help, she took a chance and trusted him. She made the bread for him and hosted him in her home through the entire time he lived in Zaraphath, until it became time for him to return to his own land. The jar of flour did not go empty, nor did the jug of oil run out for the entire year they lived together.

Another widow caught the attention of Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem. On this Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear the story often known as the widow’s mite. (Mk 12:38-44) As the story begins, Jesus was teaching in the temple. He warned those listening to him to beware of the scribes.

Last week we heard the story of the scribe who was praised by Jesus as a man not far from the Kingdom of God. That scribe had heard Jesus teaching when the widow in today’s story gave her gift to the temple. He asked Jesus the question about the greatest commandment and praised Jesus for his answer to the question. But this story came first.

The scribes to whom Jesus was referring here were educated men who served as recorders and lawyers. They knew the law and were careful to observe the letter of the law. Jesus did not criticize their knowledge or their position as specialists. However, he was incensed at the behavior of those who demanded high fees for their services as lawyers and justified the price by their apparent holiness. They recited elaborate prayers and accepted honors from all, then cheated widows and the poor.

Watching the people come and go in the temple, Jesus observed that many well-to-do people came and put large amounts of money into the collection boxes, the treasury. Checks were not used in those days, nor paper money or credit cards, so it was obvious when a large amount of money was being deposited. Then a poor widow came along. She gave two very small coins. These were something like giving two pennies. Not much to offer in comparison with the gifts given by most people. Certainly not enough to warrant attention or praise from bystanders. Yet Jesus noticed and praised her. He noted that those who were giving large gifts were not making any real sacrifice or putting any real trust in God. What they gave was what was left over after all their needs had been met. The woman, on the other hand, gave all that she had. There was nothing held back. She was now totally dependent on God. Her gift was much larger than that of the others, despite being such a small amount in absolute terms. With the psalmist, she could sing, “Praise the Lord, my soul!” The Lord who keeps faith, securing justice for the oppressed and food for the hungry (Ps 146): in this Lord she trusted totally.

Jesus sat in the temple and watched. He taught there. He prayed there. Sacrifices had been offered there on his behalf. That day, he would not likely have thought of himself as a High Priest. He was a carpenter who had received a call from God to tell everyone that the Kingdom of God was at hand. He was to bring good news to poor and rich alike. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Be good to each other. After his death and resurrection, the community reflected on what had just happened and tried to explain it in terms of their religious tradition. (Heb 9:24-28) They knew the High Priest offered sacrifices for himself and all the people. Day after day, year after year, sacrifices were offered in the temple. Yet Jesus had given himself and been raised up by the Father. Jesus had offered the perfect sacrifice to reconcile God and humans, giving himself as the faithful witness to God’s Kingdom and Love. This sacrifice would never need to be repeated. Jesus had promised to return to them. They awaited his coming eagerly.

It’s taken a lot more years than the early followers of Jesus thought it would take before his second coming. We’re not there yet, over 2,000 years later. Yet the stories of these two widows and the reflections of the psalmist and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews still speak to us of the call to absolute trust in God’s love and protection. There are times when we too must simply trust that enough material goods will come along to provide for what is needed, especially when we are asked to take precious time away from “earning a living” to help someone who is unable to fend for themselves. Or when we are asked to share the little bit extra we’ve set aside for something we want but don’t absolutely need. We don’t always get exactly what we might think we need, or when we think we must have it, but we get what is really needed, when it is needed, and not a second before then. I like to think of it as “God’s Just-In-Time Financing.” When the chips are down, something or someone comes through with the particular thing that is most needed.

Today I pray for the grace to continue to trust the Lord and the grace to be generous with my time and treasure, just as the two widows so long ago trusted in the Lord’s protection and care.

Read More

Posted by on Sep 26, 2021

What If the Lord Bestows His Spirit on All?

What If the Lord Bestows His Spirit on All?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More

Posted by on Aug 8, 2021

Food for the Journey

Food for the Journey

The prophet Elijah had a problem – her name was Jezebel, wife of King Ahab. Jezebel was not an Israelite and she worshiped gods other than the Lord. More seriously, she got her husband to offer sacrifices to her god, Baal, and she ordered that all the prophets of the Lord be killed. When Elijah demonstrated clearly that Baal was not really a god and did away with Baal’s prophets, Jezebel ordered his death. He fled into the desert and lay down under a tree, praying for death to come to him there.

It is at this point that we pick up Elijah’s story in today’s reading from the first book of Kings (1 Kings 19:4-8). Elijah begs the Lord for death. He’s had enough of being a prophet and always being in trouble, having to flee for his life again and again. He wants it all to end. But that isn’t what the Lord has in mind. Elijah is awakened by an angel who tells him to get up and eat. Obediently, he does so, then lies down again to sleep. But the angel of the Lord returns and again tells him to get up and eat more, the journey will be long. Elijah obeys once again. He eats the food provided and drinks what he has been given to drink. Then he gets up and begins to walk.

He walks for forty days and nights to Mt. Horeb, the mountain on which the Lord gave Moses the Law. There he meets the Lord and receives instructions regarding which men are to be anointed as the next kings and prophets. That story is for another Sunday. For today, the important thing for us to remember is that the Lord God provided food that would sustain Elijah for a very long journey.

Another Kind of Bread from Heaven

Jesus continues to deal with the question of bread from heaven in St. John’s account of the aftermath of the feeding of the five thousand men (Jn 6:41-51). People in the city knew Jesus and his family. He had grown up in a nearby town. How could he possibly presume to claim to have been sent from heaven?

Jesus doesn’t back down. He goes farther in his claim to authority, saying that the Father will draw people to him. Furthermore, Jesus himself has come from the Father, has seen (the word implies either spiritually or physically) the Father, and will give fullness of life (everlasting life) to those who believe what he says. Finally, he declares, “I am the bread of life.” This living bread comes from heaven and is to be given physically, in the flesh, for the life of the world. Jesus gives himself to gift eternal life to humanity.

This radical notion drew the first Christians together and shaped their identity. As St. Paul reminded one community (Eph 4:30-5:2), they were God’s beloved children because Christ loved all of us and gave himself as a sacrificial offering to the Father. As Christians they/we belong to God through our baptism and that fact is to show in our lives. We must leave behind anger, bitterness, shouting, and all other forms of hatred and malice. We are to be known for our kindness, compassion, and readiness to forgive each other. We who share the body of the Lord cannot, must not, fail to live in love. An important reminder in our day too.

Our loving Father has given us food for the journey of our lives. We don’t know where our lives as Christians will lead us. We don’t know who we will meet along the way. We don’t know who might be angry with us when we speak the truth of God’s love for all. We don’t know who might be hungering for a word of love or forgiveness or compassion.  What we do know is that we can hold on to the promise Jesus gives us. The bread he gives, the living bread that came down from heaven, brings life in all its fullness to those who receive it. Just as Elijah received food that took him to Mt. Horeb, we too receive food that will take us to meet our God in our world today.

See you at Eucharist.

Read More

Posted by on Jul 24, 2021

Grains and Bread in Abundance

Grains and Bread in Abundance

Barley loaves, the gift of the man from Baal-Shalishah to the prophet Elisha and the gift of a child to Jesus, share the spotlight in the readings for the Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time. Both the first reading from the second book of Kings (2 Kings 4:42-44) and the gospel reading from St. John (Jn 6:1-15) feature a person who brings a gift of food to the prophet. The prophet receives the food and instructs that it be shared among the people who are present in the crowd. The crowd is large and the small amount of food offered would never be enough to feed everyone, but the prophet doesn’t back down, insisting that the loaves be shared among the people. There will be enough for all.

As it turns out, in each case there was indeed enough for all. There was even bread left over. In the case of Jesus, the amount left over was enough to fill twelve wicker baskets. Granted, you and I don’t know how large a wicker basket was in those days, but the five small loaves given by the child to Jesus would not themselves have filled twelve baskets when broken into pieces unless they were tiny baskets for a doll house, let alone after they had been shared among the crowd.

There are many layers of meaning in these narratives. The fact that the man shared twenty barley loaves with Elisha indicates that he had plenty of food. Sharing it might not ordinarily have been his first thought. The fact that he was identified by his place of origin indicates that what he did was noteworthy. Those with plenty often don’t think of sharing, especially if what they have would not be enough to feed everyone and still leave some for themselves. Yet God provided for all the people, as Elisha had declared would happen.

Barley, not wheat?

Barley loaves were the most common form of bread in Israel and most of the Middle East at that time. Barley has been cultivated in that region for over 10,000 years. It grows well in areas where water can be scarce. It ripens early in the spring, having been planted in the fall. It is higher in many nutrients than wheat and is easier to prepare for eating. (It’s also used in making beer – another common use for it even today – but that’s another story!) Unleavened barley loaves were a regular part of the diet of the people who listened to Elisha and to Jesus – the ordinary folk.

Wheat is also an ancient grain, though it was less commonly used in baking in Israel. It grew well in Egypt, where the annual flooding of the Nile provided a reliable source of water. It ripened later in the season and was less nutritious. It took more work to process it into a useable form. The Egyptians developed bread and ovens in which to bake it into leavened loaves. When the Israelites left Egypt, they were instructed to eat unleavened bread, baked in haste for the journey. Wheat bread was seen as the bread of captivity and of the wealthy and powerful. It didn’t become common anywhere else until the Romans conquered Egypt and took it home with them. Even then, it was still food for the wealthier classes.

The child brought five barley loaves and two fish to Jesus, willing to share his own lunch. With this gift of love, near the feast of Passover, Jesus was able to feed five thousand men, along with the women and children who accompanied them. For St. John, this was a sign of the true revelation of who Jesus is – God who has become one of us – Jesus who becomes the new Passover Lamb. This event was seen by the early Christian community as a foreshadowing of the Eucharist – bread is taken, blessed in thanksgiving, broken, and shared with all. There is always enough to share – God sees to that.

A Miracle? A Sign?

Did the miracles happen just as they are described? Were there really no more than twenty loaves in the first case and five in the second? That is not something that we can say with any absolute, 21st Century Western Historical-minded certainty. Stories such as these were never intended to be “historical” in our sense of the word. The important thing is that bread, simple, commonly eaten bread, was shared by all in the crowd. If others besides the man identified in the first story or the child in the second also shared what they had, would that not also be something of a miracle? If folks took food with them into the countryside when they went to hear a prophet, would that be surprising? You and I would usually take something with us when going out into the countryside to hear someone speak, right? Surely at least some of those who couldn’t expect a food truck to show up out there would have taken something.

Bottom line, God provides. How? God provides through the loving presence of a community who look out for each other. St. Paul reminds the people of Ephesus (Eph 4:1-6) that they are to live “in a manner worthy of the call” they have received – the call to be the children of God. Humble, gentle, patient, loving, sharing a unity of spirit through a bond of peace. They/we are to be one – one with each other and one with our God and Father.

So out we go into the field, each taking our few barley loaves and fish, our gifts and talents, to share with those we meet along the way. We share with those who are members of our community. We also share with those who are outside our community. No one is to be excluded from the love of God and God’s community, because God loves all of creation, including all of us.

See you at Mass,

Kathy

Read More

Posted by on Jul 10, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More

Posted by on Apr 11, 2014

The Gathering of Israel

The Gathering of Israel

The first reading of the Mass for Saturday of the fifth week of Lent, the day before Holy Week begins, is from the book of Ezekiel, chapter 37, verses 21-28. It begins:

Thus says the Lord God: I will take the children of Israel from among the nations to which they have come, and gather them from all sides to bring them back to their land.

In this prophecy, Ezekiel goes on to proclaim that the kingdoms of Israel will be reunited, the people will return to true worship of their God, David will be prince over them, and the Lord will again place His dwelling among them. By this all nations will know that it is the Lord who makes Israel holy.

Who was Ezekiel?

Ezekiel was born in Israel, but was taken to Babylon at age 25 after the conquest of Jerusalem, one of 3,000 exiled members of the upper class. He received his call to prophecy in Babylon when he was around 30 years old and in his prophecies predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. Once the city and temple had been destroyed, crushing the hopes of the exiles, Ezekiel’s prophecies turned from reproach for failure to obey the Lord to promises of the Lord’s renewal of Jerusalem and the return of the people to their homeland.

The conquest of Babylon by Persia resulted in the return of the exiles to their land, the reconstruction of the temple, and the renewal of temple-based worship. The Lord’s promise made through Ezekiel was carried out, though Ezekiel himself never returned to his homeland.

A promise kept — End of story?

The Lord’s promise to gather the children of Israel from among the nations and bring them back to their land, where they would be one nation with David as their prince and the Lord’s sanctuary among them includes a double layer of promise. The first and most obvious layer was fulfilled with the return of the exiles and their descendents to Jerusalem. Jerusalem and the temple stood as the center of Jewish life until the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 AD.

With the destruction of Jerusalem and the forced relocation of the people from their homeland out into other nations, it seems that the promise was not to be permanent. God and his sanctuary no longer lived among the people on their own land. This has led some to argue that the restoration of the Jewish people to the land of their ancestors is a requirement for the ultimate fulfillment of salvation history, something that must happen before Jesus can come in his final glory and the physical world can end with the advent of the Heavenly Kingdom.

Another approach would be to consider another, deeper layer in the prophecy, one not even suspected by Ezekiel. The second layer of prophecy points us to the mission of Jesus. Jesus saw his mission as the gathering of Israel for the beginning of God’s final kingdom. He started from the bottom up, working with ordinary people in Galilee, teaching the good news of his Father’s great love and mercy. He knew, however, that eventually he would need to bring that same message to the religious and political leaders of his time. That led him to Jerusalem and the events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week.

Why would this reading be placed just before Holy Week?

This reading, coming just before the narration of the events of Jesus’ last week of life, reminds us that he came to gather all of us as well, children of Israel through adoption by God, and bring us back to God’s land, united into one people, with himself as our King, and with God’s dwelling-place deep within our hearts.

As we enter into Holy Week, let us rejoice that God is with us, still leading his children from exile and separation into one kingdom, with the Son of David as our saviour. May our hearts always be open to welcome his presence within.

 

 

Read More