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Posted by on Feb 4, 2024

Hard Times Come – Where’s the Lord?

Hard Times Come – Where’s the Lord?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B

 

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Posted by on Jan 28, 2024

New Ways of Communicating God’s Words

New Ways of Communicating God’s Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B

 

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Posted by on Oct 22, 2023

Beyond Tribal Boundaries

Beyond Tribal Boundaries

When the Jewish people returned from Egypt and moved into the land west of the Jordan River, they were organized into communities descended from Jacob, who was also known as Israel. These communities were called tribes. According to tradition, there were twelve tribes or very large extended families, each with land assigned to its members. 

The tribes mostly got along with each other, but not with outside peoples. During the years described in the Hebrew Scriptures, there were many wars with neighboring peoples. Eventually, only a couple of the original tribes remained. Those were conquered by the Babylonians and carried off into exile. 

Babylon was a powerful nation, but there was another powerful nation to the east – Persia. When Cyrus II, King of Persia, came to power and conquered Babylon, he ordered the release of the Hebrew people, allowing them to return to their land, the territory around Jerusalem in 538 BCE. 

Cyrus ruled an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River by the time of his death. He is recognized as the founder of a great line of kings of Persia. His rule was characterized by a willingness to allow conquered peoples to continue some self-governance and maintain their own traditions. 

We hear of Cyrus’ role in the history of Israel through the prophet Isaiah. “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus…” The Lord has chosen Cyrus to subdue many nations for the sake of Israel, the Lord’s “chosen one.” Note that Cyrus is called the anointed by God in this prophecy. This term used for anointed is the Hebrew word we translate as Messiah – one chosen and anointed for a particular role. (Is 45:1, 4-6)

God has chosen Cyrus for a specific mission in Salvation History – to return the Hebrew people to their own land. God is not limited by the categories or boundaries of human societies. God works in many cultures and through the interactions of many nations and peoples. As humans, we don’t always see the presence of God in our world and in the events that are taking place. Which of the Israelites in exile in Babylon would have guessed that Cyrus would be the one who would order their return home? Yet, the Lord called him for this purpose, according to Isaiah. 

Many centuries later, another one called Messiah was asked a question intended to trick him into taking a position that would either get him in trouble with the people or with the Romans who had conquered his country. The questioners were Pharisees, teachers of the Law. The question was, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Caesar was ruler of Rome and by extension of the land of Israel. If Jesus said the tax was legal, the people would be upset with him. If he said the tax should not be paid, the Romans would have grounds to arrest him. 

Jesus could see what they were up to. “Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” The coin was a Roman one, with a picture of the emperor on it. Jews were not allowed to make pictures of people or animals, so there would not be any worship of idols. Yet one of those who questioned him pulled out one of the coins and handed it to him. There were other forms of money used among the people. This coin was not typically used in daily life. It was a Roman coin. Jesus asked whose image was on the coin and what was the name written on it. They replied that it was Caesar.  

Jesus knew who it was and what it said, but he asked the question to make it clear that other forces are at play in societies and in world affairs. “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  (Mt 22:15-21)

The presence of the Romans in Israel, the status of the Jewish people as subjects of Rome, and the laws governing this small, conquered country all played a role in the way the proclamation of the Good News by Jesus and later by his followers led to the events of his life, including his death and resurrection. The spread of the news of his coming and of the reconciliation between humans and God that he brought was made far easier by the fact that Rome ruled so much of the world at that time. Travel was common, roads had been built and maintained, trade was flourishing, and the world was mostly at peace. 

The growth of the community was not unopposed. Difficulties were common. But the word was received and communities of faith grew. Paul and the others who carried the Good News through the surrounding countries and even to Rome rejoiced in the growth in the numbers of believers. They reminded those new sisters and brothers of God’s love for them and the power of the Holy Spirit, who had come to them and given them strength to live this new way of life. (1 Thes 1:1-5b)

God’s presence and action in the world reaches beyond all boundaries of human communities and traditions. God works to bring good from all that happens. Doors open. Opportunities appear for healing and peace-making. Boundaries break down.

As wars continue in our world today, let’s pray for those in a position to work for international peace, especially for peace between nations that are neighbors and may share some common history. We pray that the Lord will touch the hearts of all involved and help them to see a way forward that allows peoples to live in peace and to grow in wisdom and justice and mercy.  

Come, Holy Spirit. Breathe into our hearts the fire of love, that we may be peacemakers in our own small worlds. Then take that power of peace and move it to the larger stages of life in this world of yours. Surprise us again with the blessings of your love. 

Readings for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

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Posted by on Oct 15, 2023

On this Mountain

On this Mountain

On this mountain, the mountain of the Lord, all will share in rich food and choice drinks, death will be destroyed, tears will be wiped away from every face, and the reproach of his people will be removed from the whole earth. All will rejoice in the salvation that comes from the Lord, on this mountain.

What beautiful hopes and dreams are expressed in this reading from the prophet Isaiah. (Is 25:6-10a) It was a time of impending conflict in Israel. Defeat and exile awaited the people. Destruction of the temple on the mountain in Jerusalem was coming. All seemed hopeless. Yet, Isaiah promised that all would end well, because “the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.”

The Mountain of the Lord, the Temple Mount, in the city known as Jerusalem, is described in this passage from Isaiah. It is named often in the scriptures of Jews, Christians, and Muslims and is revered as a holy place of encounter with the Most High. When the nation of Israel was again established following the Second World War, Jerusalem was to belong to no nation. It was to be a place open to the faithful of all faiths. The name of the city itself identifies it as a place of completeness and holiness, because the Lord dwells there.

An ancient land

Today we witness once again war in the land of Israel/Palestine. The same geographic area has been known by many names throughout history. The father of both Jews and Arabs came to this land from Ur of the Chaldees over 4,000 years ago. The land belonged to others when he arrived. He and his family were foreigners, shepherds, whose God had promised them he would be with them. Against all odds, it turned out to be the case that this God was not one local to Mesopotamia. This God was present everywhere they traveled, including for a time into Egypt.

Abraham settled in the land. He and his wife did not have children and it seemed they never would. But they welcomed visitors one day and the visitors promised that they would have a child. Abraham had despaired of receiving an heir through his wife, so he had a child with her servant. This child, who was named Ishmael, Abraham believed would be his heir. However, the visitors’ promise was kept and a year later, Sarah bore a son for her husband Abraham. This was the child of the promise and he was named Isaac. Ishmael and his mother were sent away.

Thus were sown the seeds of the conflict we see continuing today.

When the descendants of Abraham moved to Egypt during a time of famine, others remained in the land they left behind. Many generations later, these descendants had grown to be a large nation. They left slavery in Egypt, with the help of their God, traveled through the Sinai Peninsula for 40 years and eventually re-entered the land of Abraham and their ancestors. Once again, the land was filled with people. It was not open for a large new group of people to move in without conflict. The newly arrived battled the existing residents and took for themselves most of the land, including the mountain on which the temple was built in Jerusalem.

As we have been hearing in the readings from Isaiah and Ezekiel, conflict continued with surrounding countries, Babylon (Iraq), Persia (Iran), Greece, and others. Sometimes the children of Israel (another name for Jacob, one of the sons of Isaac) won these conflicts. Sometimes they were defeated and the people taken into exile. Always they returned, until the Romans destroyed the temple in the year 70 CE. At that time, most of the people were killed or driven into exile.

Again, non-Jewish people, including the descendants of Ishmael, many of whom had never completely left, moved back into the area and prospered.

It was an on-going cycle of hope and disappointment, building and destruction. This cycle was not unique to this land. It was a cycle we have seen throughout history and in many areas around the world. Peoples come into a new area. Those who were living there previously are defeated. New nations rise, others come later and again war ensues. People are killed. Revenge is taken. Wars continue and hatreds grow ever more deeply rooted.

Is there any cause for hope? Will the cycle never end?

Another perspective

Jesus told a story that sheds a bit of light on this issue. (Mt 22:1-14) It seems there was a king whose son was getting married. The marriage of a royal prince is always a big deal. Invitations to the ceremony and the festivities are generally highly desired. But in this case, when the wedding feast began, none of the guests arrived. The food was ready. The tables were set. Everyone was all dressed up. And no one came.

Well, this would never do. The King sent out his servants to remind those who had been invited. But the guests refused to come to the party. There must have been some mistake, perhaps they didn’t get the date right? So he sent out the servants again with an urgent message. “I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.” The food is going to spoil. We can’t just put it into the freezer for another day! This is the day…

But the guests still didn’t come. Instead, they mistreated and killed the king’s servants.

The king was furious. He sent out his soldiers and killed those who had refused his invitation and killed his servants. He burned their city to the ground.

Still, the food was waiting and there were no guests.

This did not stop the king. He had the servants go out to the main roads and invite anyone they met there to come to the feast. Fine clothes were provided for everyone. It would still be a party worthy of the son of a king.

When the king arrived at the party, one guest stood out. This person had refused the offer of new clothes to wear for the party. He was still in his everyday traveling or work clothes.

This puzzled the king. Why haven’t you put on the wedding clothes that were provided for you? The man had nothing to say for himself. So the king ordered that he be tied up and thrown out of the banquet hall. Jesus finished his story with the words, “Many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Wedding Garments and War?

What does this have to do with the current war between Israel and Hamas?

It seems to me that the critical piece that is missing is something like that wedding garment. What does the wedding garment in the story represent? What does refusing to wear one that has been provided for the guest mean?

We are continually offered gifts by the Holy Spirit, including wisdom, understanding, and courage. These gifts allow us to bear fruit. The fruit we are to bear might be likened to the wedding garments of Jesus’ story. These garments are made of characteristics such as patience, kindness, goodness, joy, gentleness, faithfulness, peace, self-control, and love.

When we are invited to the wedding feast for the King’s son, we wear those characteristics as part of our identity and history. If we appear before the King refusing to wear these lovely garments, we won’t fit in. We will have chosen exclusion.

A change of heart is essential for inclusion at the king’s banquet. Similarly it is essential to the creation of peace in the Middle East and around the world. As long as the children of Israel and the children of Ishmael see each other as enemies who are taking each other’s land, there can never be peace. As long as revenge for injuries and massive destruction of life is the response in difficult relationships, the pogroms, massacres, and the Holocaust that were inflicted on the children of Isaac for so many centuries, and the never-ending cycles of violence over which of his descendants will own and control the land originally settled by Abraham will beset the world.

When the agendas of surrounding countries and peoples also enter into the equation, things get even more complicated. Just as in the past, other nations also played a role in whether there was peace or war in the area, larger forces complicate the realities of today and don’t help bring a peaceful resolution to modern conflicts.

Hopeful prayer

Is there hope? I believe there is always hope. I don’t know what it will take, but somehow, when the original guests don’t come to the wedding feast, there will be a way for the feast to happen anyway. Some will put on the wedding garments and lead the way. The prophet tells us that on the mountain of the Lord there will be peace and abundance. People from all nations will come together to share in the blessings and joy of God’s saving work, the defeat of evil and death. People will learn to forgive. Not necessarily to forget. But to forgive and decide to work together for the common good – that would be a critical place to start. And to trust that together they could all live and prosper. Not an easy step by any stretch of the imagination after so much hurt and anger. But essential.

In the meanwhile, we join together in prayer for peace and reconciliation. Violence does not result in peace. It only leads to more violence.

May the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Ishmael be with their descendants around the world and especially in Israel and Gaza today. May peace and justice begin to sprout and bear fruit in the land that is their common inheritance.

Readings for the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

Special thanks to Deacon Patrick Conway of Resurrection Catholic Community in Aptos for his insight into the meaning of the wedding garment in today’s parable.

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Posted by on Oct 1, 2023

Not too late to change

Not too late to change

I attended a play recently in which the world and all within it was beautiful and peaceful until spirits of anger, fear, doubt, distrust, and other negative emotions began to surround and disable the healthy functioning of the people. Eventually a wise old man went into the forest alone to seek wisdom and a solution for this terrible problem. He was advised to seek the solution through the air, the water, the earth, and fire. The wise ones of the mountain told him the people would need to pass through trials involving these forces and elements in order for life to return to the peaceful state that had existed before the coming of those evil forces. The people passed through these challenges and emerged into a community, singing of the wonders of life.

This play took the place of the more traditional ones for the festival in which it was performed. In those traditional plays, there is a dragon (from one or another of the world’s traditions) that somehow is threatening the people. With the help and guidance of angelic or spiritual forces, specifically Michael the archangel in some stories, brave people are able to tame the dragon. The dragon then provides power and help to the community to support life for all.

I have been reflecting on the difference in these stories. The first left me and many others with a sense of incompleteness. The forces that had upset the lives of the people had not really been addressed. They had not been transformed in any meaningful way. There was no reason to assume they would not return at a future date to cause even more harm. Anger was not transformed into forgiveness. Fear did not give way to courage. Doubt did not grow into a readiness to explore deeply and find inner, hidden truths. Distrust didn’t grow into a willingness to take a chance on reconciliation and healing. There was no redemption or transformation of the deep, and often fearful powers that can cause such pain and suffering in human life and damage to our ecosystem. The dragon-powers within each of us that can cause such hurt and suffering in human life did not receive the gift of transforming grace. In the traditional stories, the dragon-forces are brought under control and improve life for all. A much more satisfying result.

These thoughts fit into my reflection on the readings this week. The prophet Ezekiel spoke to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon. Prior to his time, the assumption had been that God’s judgement and any punishments for wrongdoing were communal. If others in a family or a community had broken the law, everyone would have to suffer the punishment. God was seen as a judge whose decisions affected all, whether guilty or not. So the sins of the parents were punished in the lives of their children too. If a child was born blind, for example, the question might be asked, as it was yet in Jesus’ time, “Whose sin was it that caused this”– the child’s or the parents’?

Through Ezekiel the Lord asks, “Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?” The Lord reminds them that if a good person turns from doing good things and chooses evil, that person will bear the guilt. But if a person who has been doing evil things turns away from evil and begins to do the right thing, that person will live rather than die. It’s never too late to turn away from evil. It’s a question of individual decisions and actions. God will always give life to the one who chooses to do the right thing. (Ez 18:25-28)

And what is the right thing? St. Paul reminds the Philippians that humble, loving service to each other in the community and beyond is the calling of Christians. We are to be humble as Christ was humble. To make his point even more clear, he quoted an early hymn in which we are reminded that “though he was in the form of God … he emptied himself … coming in human likeness…” Jesus even accepted death on a cross – a shameful, humiliating death. (Phil 2:1-11)

In his teaching, Jesus made the same point about our choices as individuals, by telling a story. “A man had two sons…” He asked each of them to do some work in the family vineyard. One son refused, but later changed his mind and went to work in the vineyard. The other son said, “Sure, Dad.” But he never quite got around to going into the vineyard and doing what his father had asked him to do. Jesus posed the question to the religious leaders who were questioning him, “Which of the two did his father’s will?” Of course, the answer was clear. The one who initially refused, but then changed his mind and did what had been requested.

Jesus made it clear that the ones whose actions, professions, or status in society made them the least likely to be counted among those pleasing to God, would be welcomed into the kingdom because they heard and believed his message. Those whose positions seemed to make them more likely to be pleasing would find themselves excluded because of their failure to believe it and change their lives. (Mt 21:28-32)

We each must decide, again and again it seems. How do we live out our calling to service? Where are our talents needed? Where is a kind word, or a smile, or a simple act of forgiveness going to be the key that helps another person to hope and continue onward on their journey? How do we help to bring reconciliation and transformation of the dragons within ourselves and in our society to build a better world?

As we enter into a new month and a new season, may we be ready to listen and to allow ourselves to be transformed into sources of healing and reconciliation in our families, our workplaces, our communities, our nation, and our world. It’s a beautiful world, just waiting for us to wake up and grow together in love.

Readings for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

 

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Posted by on Aug 6, 2023

One Like a Son of Man

One Like a Son of Man

“One like a Son of Man” is a phrase we hear from time to time in the Bible. It’s not a common term used for the men of those ancient times, though all are children of men (and women). Son of Man has a very particular meaning in Scripture. The reading from the Book of Daniel on the feast of the Transfiguration introduces this character.

Daniel described visions he had which made clear that the God of Israel was and is greater than any others who might claim that position. In this reading, Daniel speaks of the Ancient One whose clothing was bright as snow and hair white as wool. He sat on a great throne and wondrous power flowed out from him. As is the case in most royal courts, large numbers of people were present to meet his every need and carry out his orders. This Ancient One is meant to be understood as greater than the rulers of all the countries that had conquered Israel in its history. The most powerful God and ruler of all.

Then there is a bit of a shift. Another individual comes onto the scene, one who looks like a human man. Yet this man doesn’t come walking, or riding a horse, or in other ordinary means of travel. This one comes “on the clouds of heaven” and is presented before the Ancient One. And what does the Ancient One do? He gives this Son of Man “dominion, glory, and kingship” over all the world. This dominion is not going to end, nor will it be destroyed. It is to be everlasting.

The language of the Book of Daniel sounds very similar to that of the Book of Revelation. They are the same type of literature, apocalyptic. Both works speak of the end times and of the coming trials and hardships that will mark the end of the world. So why do we hear this one on the Feast of the Transfiguration?

When Jesus took Peter, James, and John up onto the mountain top to pray, they certainly did not expect what was going to happen there. Mountain tops are places traditionally known for meetings with God. But it doesn’t happen all that often! At least not obviously and dramatically. But this time was not to be the quiet, predictable, boring trip up the mountain of ordinary life.

On the mountain, they saw the appearance of their friend and teacher, Jesus, become totally different from a normal human being. “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” Remember the description of the Ancient One and the brightness of the light shining out from his clothing? This is a different reality than the everyday Jesus they knew and loved. Peter recognized immediately the meaning of the brightness of light and the presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus. He offered to set up three tents, not unlike the tent in which the Ark of the Covenant rested until the Temple was constructed in Jerusalem. Tents for representatives of the Lord God, the Ancient One.

A bright cloud appeared over them all and a voice spoke from the cloud. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him.”

The apostles did the most reasonable thing possible at that point in time. They immediately bowed down prostrate on the ground, fearing for their lives. Who could see God and live? They didn’t know if they would ever return to the bottom of the mountain and ordinary life. It might very well all end there.

But the next thing they knew, Jesus touched them and he looked completely normal again. Everybody else was gone. He told them to get up. As they went back down the mountain, he cautioned them not to share the vision they had seen with anyone else “until the Son of Man has been raised form the dead.”

I suspect we can all understand why they might have been just as happy not to need to tell anybody what they had seen. It would have sounded absolutely preposterous and pretentious. Such things don’t happen to ordinary people. Who are you to claim to have seen Moses and Elijah and heard the voice of God? Crazy men, that’s all…. And rising from the dead? Really? Totally crazy.

And yet… Jesus did die and he did rise from the dead. The Son of Man, the one to whom the Ancient One had given dominion, glory, and kingship, was their teacher, the very same person whom the voice from the cloud had described as his beloved Son.

The disciples shared the story of what they had seen. It became part of the teachings of the early community. The author of the second letter of St. Peter speaks of this event, as an eyewitness. This is not something made up to try to fool the superstitious or poorly educated common folk of the time. This had truly happened. So pay attention. It’s like a lamp in the darkness or the dawn breaking through the darkness of night. The Lord, the beloved Son, has been honored and praised by God the Father.

We don’t hear these readings often at Sunday liturgies, especially not in August. The Gospel readings describing the Transfiguration are more typically part of the Lenten Sunday cycles. However, when August 6 falls on a Sunday, it takes precedence over the regular celebrations of Ordinary (counted) Time. We take a day to ponder the great love of the Father who sent the Son, becoming a Son of Man, a person like each human being. He lived a normal human life and gave us a glimpse of the wonder of the sharing in God’s life that we too receive.

Let’s take a moment today to relax in the beauty of creation and the presence of the Son of Man. Crazy things can happen on mountain tops. Sometimes, we should just take a moment to savor the memory.

For a fun activity to celebrate this feast, check out this puzzle in our OFS – Other Fun Stuff section of Theologika.net.

Readings for the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord – Cycle A

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Posted by on Mar 12, 2023

Water: Cool, Clear, Water

Water: Cool, Clear, Water

My father loved the music of a group called Sons of the Pioneers. The refrain of one of their songs, Cool Water, included the phrase, “Water, water – cool, clear water.” The song told the story of at least two people traveling in a desert, presumably in the American West. One of them was hallucinating due to dehydration, seeing “big green trees and the water running free and it’s waiting there for me and you.” The other assured him that what he was seeing was not really there.

The song has been running through my head today as I think of the readings from Exodus, John’s Gospel, and Paul’s letter to the Romans. Water and God’s care for us run through them as a theme.

The Hebrew people had escaped from slavery in Egypt. They had crossed through the Red/Reed Sea. They had experienced the cleansing of bitter water at one place in the desert so they were able to drink it. Another time, when there was no food, God sent manna and quail each day for them to eat. Then they arrived at a place that came to be known as Massah and Meribah. (Ex 17: 3-7)

There was no water for this large group of people to drink. People can’t last long without water. Why had Moses led them out from Egypt to die of thirst in the desert? Moses appealed to God for help and was told to take the same staff with which he had struck the river and parted the sea and to use that staff to strike the rock in Horeb. The Lord promised to be there in front of him as he struck the  rock. Water would flow from the rock for the people to drink.

In the presence of the elders of the people, Moses struck the rock and water flowed forth, demonstrating once again that God was with them on their journey.

Many years later, Jesus and his friends were traveling through Samaria, another dry land. They stopped in the town of Sychar, the location of Jacob’s well. (Jn 4:5-42) This town had been given to Joseph by his father, Jacob, in ancient times.

Jesus waited beside the well while the rest went into town to buy food. A woman came to the well to draw water for the day. It was the wrong time of the day for a respectable woman to come to the well. Respectable women came early in the day. She was not a respectable woman, as her conversation with Jesus later demonstrated. As it turns out, she had had five husbands and was now living with a man to whom she was not married.

Jesus asked her for a drink of water from the well. This was shocking. Men didn’t speak to women in public. Men didn’t ask strange women for water. Jews didn’t speak to Samaritans. But she didn’t run away. She challenged him, asking why he was asking her for water. Jesus answered that rather than question him, she would ask him for living water if she knew who he was.

Two things pop out here to be noted. First, living water in those days meant running water, not that from a well. Secondly, John’s gospel assumes that Jesus knew what he was doing at critical points in his ministry. His actions were signs to let the world know that he, the Word of God, had come into the world and spoke with authority.

When Jesus spoke of living water, she assumed he meant running water. But there was none there, only well water. So, she challenged him. “Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this cistern…?” But Jesus didn’t back off. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again…” He told her that the water he would give would quench thirst forever and continue to grow within the person who drank it. It would lead to eternal life.

The conversation went on for quite a while. It ranged from her marital history to where people were supposed to worship and the dawning realization on the woman’s part that this man might be the anointed one of God, the Christ. She called the rest of the town to meet him. Jesus and his friends stayed in that town for several days. As Jesus told his friends, God’s harvest of people for eternal life was ready. It was time to spread the word, to reap the harvest sown for centuries in the hearts of the people.

It all started with a request for a drink of water. Cool, clear water in the middle of a hot day of walking.

By the time Paul came on the scene, Jesus had died and risen again. The community was growing and spreading outside Palestine. He had been part of spreading the word well beyond the original lands and was now writing to the community at the heart of the Roman Empire. The Church of Rome.  (Rom 5:1-2, 5-8) And what was his message?

Paul wanted all to know that God is still loving and protecting each of us. Through God’s actions, the Holy Spirit of love has been poured into our hearts. Through Jesus’ death, we received the gift of reconciliation with God. We can live in right-relationship with God, the Most High. We can experience peace, harmony, tranquility in our relationship with God and with each other. All because God is present among us and pouring out the grace, the share in divine life, that makes our restored relationship possible.

Water comes and goes in everyday life. Some years we have plenty of it. Some years it is scarce. In some parts of the world, rain is a daily reality. In other areas, an inch or less a year is all that is normally expected. This year in California, we’ve had massive amounts of rain in just a few months. We have a Mediterranean climate, which in part means we have a rainy season and a dry season. Most years, rainy season is relatively mild. This year, when there’s only an inch and a half of rain in 24 hours, it seems like a small amount! Why, one day there were three inches!

But through it all, we need water to drink. We thirst for water.  We thirst for other things too. Power, prestige, security, friendship, respect, love… The list can go on and on. What do you thirst for? What do I thirst for? Do we thirst for the cool, clear water of eternal life?

Lent is a time to ask ourselves these questions.

And when the Lord appears in our lives, in his many disguises, will we be ready to receive living water from him?

Readings for the Third Sunday in Lent – Cycle A

 

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Posted by on Feb 12, 2023

Going Deeper with The Law

Going Deeper with The Law

In the Sermon on the Mount in St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says several times, “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you…” (Mt 5:17-37) Each of the things Jesus says takes the requirement farther than the original teaching from Mosaic Law seemed to go. It’s not enough to refrain from murdering someone, even getting angry and holding on to the anger is too much. It’s not enough not to be unfaithful to a spouse. Even harboring unfaithful thoughts is too much. It’s not enough not to swear a false oath. Don’t swear oaths at all. You really have no way to back it up.

We so often are tempted to split hairs. Well, she didn’t really say I couldn’t stop for ice cream on the way home, she just said to come home! Well, it’s only a little untruthful, what difference will that make? What right does he have to tell me what to do anyway? It won’t hurt anything to do it my way instead! And so we justify what we want to do, regardless of what is asked of us.

But Jesus wants us to look at the underlying meaning of the commandments. How do we live out the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. It’s in the spirit of the law that we learn the wisdom of God and choose life. He was very clear on this. He didn’t come to overturn the Law. He came to fulfill it.

Does that mean that we have to take everything we hear in scripture at face value, even if our culture is very different from Jesus’ culture? No. But we need to understand what the reasoning was for his teachings. For example, when he speaks of divorce, it is about a different social reality than we know today in our Western culture. In his time and culture, a man could divorce a woman, but a woman could not divorce a man. Beyond that, once a woman was married, she was the responsibility of her husband’s family. Her family was no longer responsible to support her in any way. If her husband divorced her, there was no one to look out for her. She had no income, no home, no support. That’s why Jesus spoke of such women as having to commit adultery. It was the only way a lot of them could survive, but their survival method put them in violation of the letter and spirit of the law.

How about that business of gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand that causes us to sin? Not to be taken literally at all. But we need to act definitively sometimes to cut out the things from our lives that lead us to make the wrong choice or to go down the wrong road. If watching TV in the evening leads me to get angry with the baby who interrupts my watching, it’s not the baby’s fault. I need to cut out the TV watching. If having the computer in my bedroom leads me to watch YouTube rather than do my homework, maybe I need to keep and use the computer only in a public area of my home. If being around people who are smoking or drinking makes me want to do it too, or if I can’t resist their offers to join in, maybe I need to hang out with other people.

Sirach (15:15-20), long ago, presented a series of choices the Lord offers that ring true today. Fire or water? Life or death? Hang on to anger and revenge – you’ve chosen a fire that will eat at you and eventually destroy you. Choose water and you can be washed clean of the anger and other negative emotions – you are choosing life. Wisdom comes as we choose the path of life again and again over time. And sometimes, it comes as a result of having to turn from the wrong choices and the messes that have resulted when we made them. Turning from death to life.

God doesn’t force us to do anything we don’t want to do. That is a key reality of love. Freedom to choose. But God also doesn’t shield us from the consequences of our choices. God is simply there to help us pick up the pieces when we realize our mistake and make better choices the next time around. Then God gives us a big hug to let us know how much we are loved, even when we mess things up royally.

So, as we listen to the readings from Sirach, St. Paul (1 Cor 2:6-10), and the Gospel today, with all of these more demanding instructions, let’s remember that we are called to hear a deeper meaning to the rules. We’re to hear the meaning that seeks to call us to be our best selves and choose the path of life and love rather than sinking more deeply into the morass of anger, selfishness, deceit, and all that goes with them, all the while thinking we are keeping the rules as they are literally formulated. We are called to go deeper.

Readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

 

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Posted by on Jan 8, 2023

Epiphany – The Light Shines Forth

Epiphany – The Light Shines Forth

A great light shining forth in the darkness. A manifestation of something unusual. A new understanding of something. All are included as meanings of the term epiphany and are not mutually exclusive. More than one meaning can apply to any particular situation.

Since ancient times, Christians have referred to various events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth as epiphanies. He was born. He was visited by wise men from the east. He was baptized. He was seen after the resurrection. All of these events have been described by the term Epiphany.

The Epiphany of the Lord, celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church on the first Sunday following January 1, is the day we remember the visit of the sages from the East. These scholars watched the skies for signs that something important was happening somewhere in the world. Each part of the sky, each constellation, carried a meaning. If something changed within that section, it meant something was changing for humans too. Accordingly, when they noticed a new light appearing in a region of the sky related to the land of Israel and to royalty, they went to see who had just been born. (They lived close enough to this event to go for a visit!)

St. Matthew (Mt 2:1-12) tells of their visit and gives us an historical time frame that also tells us approximately when Jesus was born. “In the days of King Herod …” Herod was king from 37 to 4 BC, so Jesus was born during that time. The travelers stopped at the royal palace to inquire for the new child, a reasonable thing to do, given that the child was born to be a king according to the stars.

The wise ones were sent on to Bethlehem, where indeed they found the child and his parents, no longer in a stable, but in a house. Their gifts were shared and they returned home without checking in again with Herod. An angel had warned them in a dream that Herod was not to be trusted.

This event was and is seen as the first time non-Jews were welcomed into the new manifestation of God’s kingdom of love for all humans. In the past, it had been understood that people would come from all over the world to Jerusalem, to the house of the Lord. But the full meaning of the prophecy of Isaiah (60:1-6) was not totally obvious. “Nations shall walk by your light … your sons come from afar and your daughters in the arms of their nursemaids.” These words originally were spoken in terms of the return from Babylon to Israel. But the early followers of Jesus understood them to refer to people of all nations who would become part of the people of God, children of the covenant centered in Jerusalem.

On this day we celebrate that we are included among the many nations that rejoice at the light dawning with the coming of Jesus. We bring the gift of ourselves to the community of faith. Together we offer our gifts and talents along with the bread and wine on the altar. We sing of three kings coming to visit a baby. May we also sing with reference to our own lives. “Star of wonder, star of night … guide us to the perfect light.”

If you have time and are so inclined, it’s fun to make a Kings Cake / Rosca de Reyes to share with family and friends on this day.

Illustration: The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow – 1563 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Look for the magi in the lower left corner of the painting!

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Posted by on Dec 4, 2022

“A Shoot Shall Sprout from the Stump of Jesse”

“A Shoot Shall Sprout from the Stump of Jesse”

Redwood trees in California grow to tremendous heights and can live for thousands of years. Their bark is highly fire resistant. Even when fires come, the trees historically have lived on, scorched, but still standing. They have very tiny cones for such large trees. Folks who visit redwood forests sometimes assume that these giant trees must have very deep roots in order to continue to stand tall through the centuries, sometimes supporting other trees and plants that grow high in their crowns. They wonder how such small cones can lead to the sprouting of such massive trees.

In actual fact, redwood trees have shallow roots. Their roots intertwine with those of the surrounding trees and together, they hold each other up. Their cones and tiny seeds are not essential to the continuation of the forest either. Though some trees can grow from seed, most do not. More commonly, new shoots sprout up from trees that have reached the end of their days and fallen to the ground. These new baby trees grow to new heights of their own. The fallen trees are sometimes called nurse trees.

Redwoods came to mind when I read the words of Isaiah (11:1-10) about the coming of the one who will restore peace among all creatures and with the Lord who made them. “On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.”

Jesse was the father of David, the shepherd who was secretly anointed to become the second King of Israel. Many years had passed and the kings of Israel were not always faithful to the Lord in their role as leaders of the nation. It was as if the tree of Jesse had been cut down or had fallen and died. Nothing remained but the stump – descendants of Jesse and the promise that the messiah would come from his line.

Isaiah reminded the people that the promise still remains. A new leader will arise from Jesse’s line. This new person will not be a corrupt king. No, the spirit of the Lord will rest on this one, bringing gifts that will set him apart from others. Wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, awe in the face of the wonder of the Lord. This person will judge justly, care for the poor, strike down the ruthless, do away with the wicked, and bring peace to the world. Even the world of the animals will become a place of peace in this vision. When this time comes, the Gentiles will see the signal set up from the root of Jesse and seek out the dwelling of the Lord.

It’s a wonderful picture, one which is still in the process of development. Like the growth of a redwood tree sprouting from the root of a fallen mother tree, it takes time and patience. Fortunately for us, the Lord has all the time in the world!

St. Matthew describes the mission of Jesus’ cousin John. (Mt 3:1-12) John was born about six months before Jesus. As an adult, he spent time in the desert. When he emerged from that sojourn, he began to call the people to repent and turn back to God. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He spoke of himself as a voice “crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord.” People came from far and wide to the Jordan River to hear his message. He baptized people there, symbolically washing away their sins by plunging them into the water of the river.

Religious leaders came out from Jerusalem to see what he was doing, and probably to tell him to stop. But he spoke out against their assumption that because Abraham was the father of the nation, God would not hold them to account for the wrongs they had done. “God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” What was really needed was repentance for wrong-doing and a choice to live justly.

John spoke of the coming of his cousin, the one who actually was the promised messiah. “The one who is coming after me is mightier than I … He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.” A new day is coming. A new presence of the divine is coming into the world. Be ready. The shoot has sprouted and the Spirit of the Lord is upon him.

Many years later, St. Paul encouraged the Romans to endure in hope and in harmony as they live as a community of faith. There is to be no distinction between those who are Jewish and those who are Gentiles. Christ welcomes all. He came first to the Jews, in fulfillment of the prophecies and promises made over two thousand years of their history. But that doesn’t make the descendants of the first Israelites better than those who were not the children of Abraham, Isaac and his line. It simply means that the ultimate goal has now been reached. Gentiles are drawn to “glorify God for his mercy.” God’s actions among the Jewish people have borne the long-promised fruit. Humans are unified as one people again and all sing praise to God.

We are in the second week of Advent now. The coming of the Lord among us is both a remembered historical event that we will celebrate at Christmas and a daily event in our lives, as we meet him in the people with whom we interact each day. One day, we will also meet him when the angels lead us into the eternal kingdom.

How are we preparing? Are we taking time to notice the Lord’s presence? Are we rejoicing in the little things? Can we trust that everything that truly needs to be done in the next days and weeks will get done and what doesn’t get done is maybe not all that important?

Let’s promise each other that we will try to stop for a few minutes each day to reflect on the ways in which goodness sprouts from roots hidden deep in the ground, high in the trees, or within each person. May we be blessed with a recognition of the presence of the Lord in each day of our lives.

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent – Cycle A

Here’s a good article on Redwood trees.

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Posted by on Nov 27, 2022

Time to Wake Up!

Time to Wake Up!

A new year begins today! Much of the world around us is focused on big sales and preparing for Christmas. But with the First Sunday of Advent, we begin a new year. We light the first candle on our Advent Wreath. We turn our focus to preparing for the coming of Christ. We look forward to a new set of liturgical readings as well. This year we will hear from St. Matthew as he shares the story of the coming of the Messiah.

How does the Messiah come into our lives? How do we prepare for his coming? Is there something different we should be doing? Why do we need to do anything differently at all?

The beginning of a new liturgical year is a bit like the beginning of a school year, after a long summer vacation of sleeping late and playing outside long into the evening. It is not always a welcomed thing to have to get up on time to get to school again. And yet, there is an excitement to be back together and to start doing and learning new things.

We have come through a year of hearing St. Luke’s stories, both those told by Jesus and those told by others about him. What new things will we learn this year?

Isaiah tells us about the time when the exile of Israel in Babylon was drawing to an end. (Is 2:1-5) The people had received permission and encouragement to return to their own land again. Folks who had seen Jerusalem destroyed and who had begun life anew in Babylon were not necessarily excited about returning to a ruined city and once again starting over. They had become comfortable in their new homes.

Isaiah calls them back. “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain… All nations shall stream toward it…” He foretells a time when people from all over the earth will listen to the Lord’s voice, ruling from Jerusalem, judging the nations, and bringing peace to the world. He calls, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

It’s a new time, a new day, a new hope for the peoples of the world.

The psalmist, in Psalm 122, speaks of Jerusalem as well. “Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.” Jerusalem is the city in which the Lord’s house is located. There the people give thanks. There the judgement seats are set up for the house of David. There the prayers are offered for peace, prosperity, and good things for all peoples. Truly a place for rejoicing.

St. Paul also speaks of waking up in his letter to the Romans (13:11-14). “It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.” Salvation is at hand. The time of darkness, with all the awful things that can happen in the dark, is passing away. It’s a time for light and life, for conduct reflecting the light of the Lord Jesus. So “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” in this new day and age. Wake up! Let go of the past. Decide each day to live in the light of this new day.

Finally, St. Matthew (24:37-44) relates Jesus’ instructions regarding the final times – the time when the Son of Man will come at last. He begins with an example familiar to all. “In the days of Noah” it was like it will be when the Son of Man comes. Folks lived their daily lives. They ate and drank. They married and gave their children in marriage. They had no clue anything was going to change in their lifetimes. If they noticed Noah’s preparations for a changed reality, they didn’t believe it or change their way of life. The kept on keeping on and enjoying their lives. And then the flood came and they were unprepared.

Similarly, says Jesus, when the Son of Man comes, it will be a surprise. Some will be taken and others will remain behind, living life as they are accustomed to live it. He says, “Stay awake!” Would those left behind have remained behind if they had been paying attention and noticed that the Son of Man had come?

We do not know the day or the hour when we will meet the Son of Man. It doesn’t need to be a great earth-shaking calamity in which the world is destroyed or Jesus comes on a cloud to judge all the people of the world. The day will come on which each of us meets the Lord in person. There are no guarantees when we get up in the morning that we will go to bed at night. And vice versa.

As we begin this new year, it is good to remember that all can change in an instant. So we must remain alert and prepared for meeting the Lord. It may be that we meet him in another person. It may be that we see the Lord’s hand in a beautiful sunrise or sunset or in the smile of a child. It may be that we meet him as we make that final transition into eternal life. Wherever and whenever we meet him, pray with me that our eyes will recognize his loving presence.

Wake up! Get ready! A brand new year of life and growth in love awaits us.

Happy New Year!

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Cycle A

 

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Posted by on Oct 23, 2022

Hearing the Cry of the Oppressed

Hearing the Cry of the Oppressed

There is an old apocryphal story about a man who went to work one day and was treated harshly by his employer. The mistreatment was totally unwarranted and he rightly felt upset, angry, and short-tempered. When he returned home, he was still feeling very upset.

Something his wife said upset him further. It wasn’t anything aimed at him. He actually misunderstood what she was trying to tell him, because he was feeling so angry and hurt by what had happened earlier. So he yelled at his wife and accused her of incompetence in her homemaking and love for him because dinner was not ready when he arrived. The poor woman was justifiably upset by all of this. It was totally unexpected and unwarranted.

As she tried to refocus and get back to dinner preparations for the family, their child burst through the door, knocking over the water jug that was ready to be carried outside to water the plants. (Shall we say this was all taking place during a drought in California?) The water spilled over the floor and carpet. She was now going to have to pause the dinner preparations to get the mess cleaned up. This on top of her husband’s anger that dinner was going to be a few minutes late… She shouted angrily at the child for knocking over the water.

The child was stunned. The rapid entrance had been prompted by the excitement of seeing a beautiful bird in the yard and hurry to share this delight with Mom! Now it was all spoiled. The child felt stupid for knocking over the jug and unloved because of having done something clumsy.

The child retreated back outside where the dog was happily waiting to play. Instead of picking up the ball dropped at his feet by the dog, the child kicked the dog out of his way as he raced to his special calm-down hideaway.

All this upset resulted from the harsh treatment received at work from the hands of one person. The boss yelled at Dad and the dog got kicked, with lots of relationships harmed along the way.

Now, I hope nothing like this has ever happened to you. But I know that there have been times in my life when I was upset about something and passed that upset on to innocent people around me. What can be done to heal the harm done? Sometimes it’s possible to apologize or to catch and hold the child close letting them know how loved they are and how unfairly they have just been treated. But other times, the opportunity to apologize never comes. The person who was hurt never comes around again, to avoid the chance it will happen another time. Or the person moves or dies and the opportunity is lost.

I thought of this story as I read a commentary on Jesus’ story of the two men who went up to the temple to pray. (Lk 18:9-14) The first of the men was a religious leader and was proud of all his efforts and success in following the laws and traditions of his community. “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity …” Luke includes a brief statement just before this quotation, telling us that the man “spoke this prayer to himself.” That little phrase, “to himself,” offers two possible meanings: 1) He spoke in a quiet voice, without the intention that anyone else would hear his words, or 2) he spoke these words in essence as a prayer to himself, rather than to God. Neither option is exactly praiseworthy, though the first is better than the second.

The other man was a tax collector. Tax collectors were not honest, respectable people who only insisted that people pay what they rightly owed to support their local community and the services they received as taxpayers – police, fire protection, schools, etc. In those times, tax collectors had a quota of money they had to collect from their fellow citizens to send to those at higher levels of government. Anything they collected above and beyond that base, they got to keep for themselves. The same was true at each level up the hierarchy, all the way to the Roman Emperor’s court! Everyday ordinary folks paid far higher taxes than what the Emperor demanded of them in tribute.

The tax collector stood off to the side, beating his breast and praying, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” The term he used for merciful was not the one that we usually see translated as merciful. There is another word in Greek that means, to expiate or make atonement for what has been done by someone. This man recognized that he had done great harm in his life, harm which he would never be able to repair. Lives and hopes of ordinary people had been damaged or destroyed by his actions in ways he could never, ever undo. Only God can begin to repair the harm, and this is what he requested.

Jesus concluded, only the tax collector went home justified, on good terms with God. The tax collector recognized the cries of the oppressed that had arisen due to his actions. He begged and received forgiveness and he “went home justified.”

Sirach, a teacher of wisdom who wrote between 200 and 175 BCE, lived in Jerusalem. His actual name was Jesus, Son of Eleazar, son of Sirach, but the text’s original title appears to have been, Wisdom of the Son of Sirach. This title was later shortened to The Book of Sirach. Sirach includes many insights into how people should live with each other and with God, as well as praise of many of the great ancestors of Israel.

This wise teacher speaks of God’s justice and attentiveness to the cries of the oppressed (Sir 35:12-14, 16-18). He notes that the Lord does not play favorites. It doesn’t matter whether the person asking for help is rich or poor, well-born or from the lowest social class. The Lord hears all people’s voices and does not unduly favor anyone. Nevertheless, the Lord is neither deaf nor charmed by the social prestige of the petitioner. The one whose prayers are heard is the one who serves God willingly. The widow, the orphan, the oppressed are all heard. Their cries travel like arrows piercing the clouds and reaching to the ears of the Most High. The Lord “judges justly and affirms the right.”

The Lord hears the just when they cry out “and from all their distress he rescues them,” says the Psalmist (Ps 34)

As St. Paul neared his execution, he reflected on the life he had led since that fateful day when he met the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. (2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18) He speaks of his life as if it were a drink from a sacrificial ritual that would be poured out as part of the prayer at the end of the ritual. The sacrifice he has offered has been his life of faithful witness to what he learned. He has kept the faith that was entrusted to him and passed it on to all who were open to receive it. He does not blame those who didn’t turn up to serve as witnesses on his behalf during his trial. Rather, he asks the Lord to forgive them and gives thanks that he had a chance once again to witness to the resurrection before one more group of people who might not ever have heard the good news otherwise. His shepherd, Jesus, rescued him from “the lion’s mouth” of fear that might have held him back from testifying to what he had experienced. The Lord has been faithful in the past and Paul believes and trusts that His faithfulness will never fail.

Our daily lives bring many surprises. Some are wonderful. Some are awful. Sometimes we start the chain of events that lead to the poor dog getting kicked. Sometimes we are a part of the chain along the way to the poor dog. Sometimes we might even be in the position of that unfortunate animal. But like the tax collector, we can count on the Lord to help make things right again. The Lord hears the cries of all, without favoring any because of social status or ability to make contributions for beautiful monuments or other displays. He is present with those who are least able to protect themselves. He chases after the “lion” to snatch the “lamb” from its jaws, as King David boasted he had literally done as a shepherd boy.

Let us pray today that we too will have the courage to ask for the Lord’s help in difficult times, as well as when things seem to be going well. We need help in either situation, so that when ultimately we approach the Lord, we can have the courage to recognize our failings and ask his help to straighten up the messes we’ve made and heal the hurts we’ve inflicted on others. And if we are the one who has been hurt, we also pray for healing rather than vengeance or passing on injury to others. The poor dog in the story needs a break!

Readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C

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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 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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