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Posted by on Sep 25, 2022

Habits and What We See – What Do I Notice?

Habits and What We See – What Do I Notice?

Walking or driving down the road, on a route I’ve been taking regularly for over thirty years, once in a while I’ll notice something out of the ordinary. It may be only a quick glimpse as I go by or it may be something I see up ahead and take a moment to observe as I approach and move past it. Yesterday it was a red-tail hawk that flew from the bluff up onto a lamp post. Tomorrow it may be something else. When this happens, I find myself wondering how many other things I might have missed seeing as I’ve gone along my way.

Researchers say that most of what we see never consciously registers. We get used to seeing things that haven’t changed from day to day. It’s only when something changes that we notice it.

The same can be all too true of our relationships with other people, whether family members, friends, or strangers. We come to expect certain behaviors and reactions from those we know. Our interactions are pre-established and based on a long history of encounters. We think we know the other person and nothing will be any different this time around, so we don’t notice the sometimes subtle cues that a change has occurred. Similarly, when we are always with people who have known us for a long time, we don’t get a lot of chances to become different persons with them. That’s one of the great advantages of moving to a different area for college or work, especially for young people. There’s a chance to discover new things about themselves and experiment with new activities and lifestyles.

This continuity of expectations with a family or community is a common human experience. It’s part of the formation and maintenance of cultures and traditions. As a general rule, it works pretty well. But not always… Social class, societal expectations, peer pressure, fear – all can lead to a certain amount of blindness to the presence and needs of those around us.

The land of Israel in ancient times was divided into areas populated by the descendants of Jacob and his son Joseph. Those who lived in one geographic and territorial area did not always pay much attention to what was happening in another one. As a result, when the northern lands were conquered by Assyria in around 721 BC, wealthy folks in the southern territories didn’t pay much attention. The wealthy continued their lives of luxury and ease. They ate food that was normally only used for sacrificial offerings, made music, used costly oils and perfumes, and generally lived the “good life.” Not much attention was wasted with concern for the fate of folks in the northern territories or the poor of their own land. Amos, a prophet in the southland, called to them with a serious warning that this was not going to last. “They shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with.” (Am 6:1a, 4-7) Needless to say, this is exactly what happened to the southern kingdom as well, on more than one occasion.

Those who saw only what they expected to see, missed the signs of coming disaster. Those who did not care for the less fortunate, found themselves joining the latter in suffering. Those who fancied themselves to be singers and composers of great songs, like David, didn’t notice the themes of David’s psalms: justice for the poor, food for the hungry, sight for the blind, freedom for captives, protection for strangers …

Another person who didn’t see what was around him was the rich man in the story Jesus told to a group of Pharisees with whom he was speaking one day. This rich man was extremely wealthy. He wore purple linen clothing. Linen is a fine fabric and was not commonly used by ordinary folk for clothing. Purple is such a hard color to produce as a dye that typically only rulers wore it. It’s commonly used today, but not in those days. This mega-millionaire/billionaire ate lavishly each day and had everything he could ever want.

Another man, named Lazarus, is also featured in the story. Lazarus, whose name means “my God helps,” is extraordinarily poor. He lies beside the door of the rich man and would happily eat the scraps that fell on the floor from the table of the rich man, but even those are never offered to him. In fact, the only ones who seem to notice him are the dogs who come and lick his sores!

The rich man does not see Lazarus in any meaningful way. To the extent that he does notice him, he doesn’t care. Lazarus is just a regular feature of the world outside his door. Nothing worth notice here …

The position of the two changes upon their deaths. Abraham welcomes Lazarus, carried to him in the arms of angels. The rich man ends up in the netherworld, suffering greatly. Adding insult to injury, the rich man can see Lazarus with Abraham. Ever the practical man, and accustomed to getting what he wants, the rich man calls out to Abraham, asking that Lazarus be sent with a drop of water to ease his sufferings.

Notice that the rich man never noticed Lazarus in life, but he sees him in death. Abraham and Lazarus can see the rich man too. They could always see him. However, there’s a chasm between the two experiences of the afterlife. No matter how much they might want to help the rich man, they cannot do so. The rich man is still thinking primarily of his own comfort. He doesn’t apologize for mistreating Lazarus in life. He just asks for help for himself and assumes Lazarus is the one to provide it.

When Abraham explains that such help is not available to the rich man, the next request is that Lazarus be sent to the five brothers of the rich man, so they can be warned and avoid the same terrible fate. This is a bit of a step forward, at least he’s thinking of someone else. However, this is not to be. Abraham reminds him that Moses and the prophets already had spoken such words of warning. The brothers should listen to those words. Still not seeing his own relationship with Lazarus as one of brotherhood in God’s family, the rich man argues that surely his brothers would change their behavior if one who returned from the dead brought them a warning. Abraham responds, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will the be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” (Lk 16:19-31)

This story speaks to us too. Do we believe the words of the one who rose from the dead? How do our habits of seeing and not seeing impact our relationships with those around us?

We, like Timothy of old, are called to “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.” (1 Tim 6:11-16) St. Paul reminds his friend and us that this is not an easy pursuit. It will take time and commitment to live this way. Opposition will arise along the way. But the Lord Jesus will return as ruler when the time is right. The way we see others and the way we live our calling will depend at least in part on the habits we form as we live out our calling as followers of Jesus.

There is much to ponder here. Is the chasm really so deep that those who do not live lives of service and compassion cannot ever cross or that those like Abraham who can see across the chasm cannot reach out and help (which would likely be their normal response)? What about God’s willingness to forgive everything? Is it possible to be excluded from that forgiveness? Do we have to do anything to get that forgiveness? It can’t be demanded as a right or bought. What hope is there?

I read a book last spring that offers an intriguing peek at some of the issues raised by these bits of Scripture. The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, takes place in medieval times. It’s easy to read, geared towards middle school level readers. A boy whose origins are unknown, accompanies a ragtag traveler through Europe to Rome, searching for and stealing relics of St. Peter along the way. The actual identity of the traveler and the boy are revealed in hints and only very gradually as they travel. Not until the very end does the complete picture come together. I highly recommend it to any who are ready to open their eyes and ears to a glimpse of a complex truth as revealed in what seem like very ordinary, somewhat disreputable, earthly actors and their interaction.

For now, let’s be careful to keep our eyes open, to notice what’s around us all the time, not just new and different things. Smile at the folks you meet on the street. You may be the only one who does all day. Give a hand when you can. Even small things can make a big difference. Welcome newcomers. Help refugees. Notice the un-housed on the street and treat them with respect. Be patient with each other at home. Play with children. Laugh with those who laugh. Be present and quiet with those who mourn.

Habits take time to establish. Here’s hoping the ones we have at the end of our lives eliminate the great chasm between us and the bosom of Abraham. Let’s open our eyes and see the Lord’s presence here with us, today and always.

Readings for the Twenty-sixth 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 Aug 28, 2022

Hard to be Humble?

Hard to be Humble?

Well over forty years ago, my husband and I liked to go square dancing once a week. We were with a club of mostly older couples, though there were a few younger ones too. The caller was an older man, rather small, with plenty of grey hair – truly ancient… As is done in square dancing, he sang the words of the song, as he inserted the instructions telling us all what to do next in the dance.

A new song at that time was It’s Hard to be Humble, by Mac Davis. We all enjoyed it as our caller sang the chorus, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror, ‘Cause I get better looking each day …” It went on in that vein for several lines, concluding, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, But I’m doing the best that I can!”

Humility, as exemplified in the song, is a tricky thing. There’s the false humility that has a person denying their talents and strengths, because speaking of them has brought, or might bring, charges of boasting. There’s the opposite of humility, in which people consider themselves or their talents to be so much greater than those of their peers that no one can possibly measure up to their standards. Humility does not mean denying one’s gifts and talents. Nevertheless, the fellow boasting of his humility in the song does not particularly impress his listeners as being all that humble.

Part of the challenge with humility is in the multiple meanings of the word when we use it in speaking of our relationships with God and with other humans. Sirach, a Jewish teacher of wisdom around 200 – 175 BC, wrote originally in Hebrew. When it was translated into Greek, the word for humility used is one that can include courtesy, gentleness, and consideration of the feelings of others as part of its meaning. It’s not just knowing one’s own strengths and weakness, it’s also being gentle and careful with the self-image and feelings of others.

Since humility is multifaceted, Sirach presents his insights through a series of proverbs. (Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29) He points out that those who behave with humility will be more loved than those who give a lot of gifts, but do it in a way that makes the recipients feel less worthy. It’s not necessary to seek wisdom in new ways of thinking or in philosophies from other cultures and traditions. Paying attention to the ways God reaches out through the lowly and through the wonders of nature will result in more fruitful growth in humility and wisdom. This is where the humility pleasing to God is to be found, because God is present with the poor. As the Psalmist points out, God is father of orphans, defender of widows, releaser of prisoners, and the one who provides a home for the needy and those who have been driven from their land. (Ps 68) It is with the humble of the earth that the blessings and rewards of humility will be found.

St. Luke presents Jesus speaking of humility in practical terms. (Lk 14:1, 7-14) Jesus has been invited to dinner at the home of a leading Pharisee, an influential man. Everyone is watching him closely to see what he will do. He, in turn, is watching the other guests, observing their efforts to select places of honor at the table. (The table was probably U-shaped, with the places of greatest honor being on the shorter side that joined the two longer sides. The places of lowest honor were at the far ends of the long sides.) As they select their places, Jesus tells them a parable – he presents a picture of a better way to behave both as guests and as hosts.

Imagine a wedding feast to which you have been invited, he tells them. Don’t make the mistake of sitting at the head of the table or other place of honor. If someone more distinguished arrives, you will be told to move to a place of less honor at the table. Do yourself a favor – select a place at the end of the table’s long sides. Then you may be the one instructed to move closer to the wedding party, to the places of honor. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Then Jesus speaks to the host (and to the rest of us). Invite the folks who are normally ignored to celebrate with you at your banquets. They can give you nothing in return, but God will repay you on their behalf, because of the kindness you have shown, the humility of your service.

In all of this, it is God who lifts up and exalts those who act with kindness and compassion, those whose lives demonstrate humility.

The kingdom of God, according to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, will be seen in “the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Heb 12:18-19, 22-24a) The old law was given to Moses in a terrifying manner at Mt. Sinai – with blazing fire, darkness, storms, and the blast of trumpets. The voice that spoke was terrifying and those who heard begged for it all to stop. But the new covenant is found at Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. Angels are gathered at the festivities. So are those enrolled in heaven through baptism and those whose spirits have been made perfect through the experiences that purify their very lives. All are joined and reunited with God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, whose blood “speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” (whose blood shed by his brother cried out to God from the earth).

It’s not easy to be truly humble. Fortunately, we get lots of opportunities to learn humility. As we come down off our pedestals and open our hearts to hear the stories of those around us, we grow closer to our God, who lives intimately with those at the bottom of our human societies. With quiet smiles, gentle words, patient listening, and generous hearts, we meet our God in those whom we encounter on our journey through life. May we be always open to receive God’s smile in return from those whom we serve.

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

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Posted by on Aug 21, 2022

Workouts in God’s Gym

Workouts in God’s Gym

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to God’s Gym. Enjoy your workout!

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

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Posted by on Aug 14, 2022

Setting the Earth on Fire

Setting the Earth on Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

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Posted by on Aug 7, 2022

Living in Faith – A Long-term Commitment

Living in Faith – A Long-term Commitment

A life of faith – what is it and how does it happen?

It seems to me that a life of faith is an adventure, begun by each individual person, with many companions discovered along the way. For some, it is a gradual experience of growing up in a family or community of others who are travelers on the way. For others, it’s a process of growing into faith through the example of friends or colleagues. Once in a while, it’s the result of an unanticipated encounter with the Lord that opens new worlds and paths.

Regardless of how a life of faith begins, it is a long-term commitment.

The author of the Book of Wisdom, spends many chapters reminding listeners of the history of faith of the Hebrew people. In the reading for this Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, he reminds his audience of the night of the Passover. (Wis 18:6-9) He is writing in the city of Alexandria, about 100 years before the birth of Christ to remind the Jewish community there of the ways God worked on behalf of their ancestors and how those ancestors responded. He has described the events leading up to the exodus from Egypt, including the many plagues. Now he reminds them and us that the Lord warned the Hebrews of the final blow against Pharoah. Families were to gather, offer a lamb in sacrifice, put its blood on the door frame, then roast and eat it together. The bread they would eat was to be unleavened, as if they were running away and there was no time to prepare a meal properly. That night, the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Hebrews. The blood of the lamb on the door frames identified and protected them. This event was and is celebrated annually ever since that first Passover night.

The Hebrew people had held on to the faith of their ancestors for hundreds of years by the time of these events. They remembered the Lord’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When they left Egypt, they took the remains of Jacob and his son Joseph with them to the Promised Land.

The Psalmist sings of the great blessing it is to be one of the Lord’s own in Psalm 33. The Lord has chosen a people for his own inheritance. “Exult, you just, in the Lord.” The Lord delivers his own from famine and death. He is a help and shield. “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.” Not just in easy times, but also through the ups and downs, the hard times of life.

The faith of another ancestor of the Hebrew people is given as an example in the Letter to the Hebrews. (Heb 11:1-2, 8-19) It’s not at all clear who the author of this letter was or to whom it was addressed. It was written before 100 CE. It has been attributed to St. Paul, but most likely it was another of the early Christian missionaries. The author speaks of faith as something hoped for that comes to be – something that gives evidence for what cannot be seen. He gives the example of the lives of Abraham and Sarah.

Abraham and Sarah were from Ur, an area in modern day Iraq. They had traveled with family to an area north of Palestine. Then, following the Lord’s call, they moved south into Palestine. They lived there as traveling shepherds for most of the rest of their lives. There was a brief time in Egypt as well, but mostly they lived in Palestine.

Through a variety of encounters with the Lord, Abraham was transformed from a man named Abram to become the father of two great nations – Jewish and Arab. His descendants became “numerous as the stars” as the Lord had promised. But it was not without trials and difficulties along the way. The author of this letter points out, that the focus of Abraham and his wife Sarah was on the new homeland to which they had been led. They never owned the land themselves. They were always “strangers and aliens” there – much as Green Card holders are in the United States. If Abraham and Sarah had wanted to do so, they could have returned to the land of their birth, but they had found a new Lord and received the promise of a new homeland from him. They held on to that promise, even when it seemed the Lord was demanding the sacrifice of the son of their old age.

A life of faith takes many twists and turns. It’s not always easy. Things aren’t always clear. Some things can be very difficult.

“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock…” Jesus speaks these words of encouragement to his followers. “For your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom … where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Lk 12:32-48) It’s not easy to trust that God will provide whatever is truly needed. He has just spoken of the rich man who built a new barn to hold his abundant harvest, but would die that night! Trust God, he tells them and all of us. Lilies in the field are beautiful. They don’t fret or work for their beauty. You are worth much more than the flowers. So don’t be afraid. God will provide what you need too.

Yet Jesus knows that it’s hard to wait sometimes. We can start out being very trusting and sure that we are ready for whatever will come in our lives as followers of the Lord. We want to be ready when we meet him in our lives now and later. But there is a danger too. It’s easy to get discouraged or distracted, to fall into the habit of doing things that benefit us personally rather than building up the kingdom. Jesus warns that those who are given more responsibility and greater gifts are expected to use them as intended by the one who gave them these gifts. “More will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”

These are serious words. In a life of faith, the initial excitement and wonder of the encounter with the Lord is a great starting point. But excitement wears off and the realities and challenges of daily living creep up on us again. God’s time is much longer than ours. God’s plans take longer to bear fruit. We are part of the plans, and so are many other people. We travel together, encouraging each other, helping each other through the rough times, rejoicing with each other in the good times.

Faith is both a personal and a communal commitment. How can I help you in the journey? How do I depend on you for help? Will I be humble enough to ask and accept your help when I need it? Where do we see the Lord? Where do we refuse to see him? Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief – an old rhyme, but perhaps important to remember. We might add, immigrant, refugee, invading soldier, LGBTQ neighbor or family member, woman, child, gang member, ex-convict, bossy relative … Where do we see the Lord?

Let’s pray for each other, that we be able to continue on this long-term journey of faith. Reaching out to our world and all we meet with eyes that see others as children of God, sisters and brothers, may we be people of patient, persistent faith. May we rejoice in the adventure as we discover the face of our God in so many others and in so many places. A life of faith is not to be something hard that weighs us down. “Do not fear, little flock!” The Father wants to give us the kingdom. May our eyes be open to see the kingdom, our ears be open to hear it, and our hearts be open to receive it as we move through the days of our lives.

Click for a lovely musical setting of Do not fear from Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam

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Posted by on Jul 31, 2022

Vanities of Vanities – What is Worth Holding On To?

Vanities of Vanities – What is Worth Holding On To?

“Vanity of Vanities, says Qoheleth … All things are vanity!”

Wow! Now isn’t that encouraging and uplifting! No? Well then, let’s see what more might be happening here.

Let’s start with a question. Who is Qoheleth and why is this person quoted in an entire book of the Hebrew Scriptures? Maybe a couple of other questions too. Why such a discouraging/depressing perspective? What does it mean to say something is vanity?

Qoheleth is the pen name of an unknown sage, a person recognized for wisdom. These words were written about 300 years before the birth of Jesus. The text of the book of Ecclesiastes has Qoheleth claiming to be the son of King David, presumably King Solomon, who was known for his wisdom. But in the time these words were recorded, the thoughts of anyone who wrote or taught about or with wisdom might be credited to Solomon. Qoheleth is a name meaning teacher or “speaker in an assembly.” Ecclesiastes is the Latin form of the name.

The word vanity also has a particular meaning. It refers to something that is quickly passing, a vapor or a breath. It’s short-lived, without substance, futile, mysterious, hard to understand.

Qoheleth tells us that everything is short-lived and passing. Things come and go. They flourish and then they are gone. We work hard and prosper, then we die and someone else benefits from our work. We fret and worry, but in the end our worry doesn’t change things. (Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23)

It’s not an easy message to hear, especially for folks, like most of us, whose culture says that if we just work hard enough, we can get ahead in life and have what we dream of having. Qoheleth says that this is just a dream that will certainly pass, regardless of how hard we strive.

The book of Ecclesiastes is a compilation of observations, proverbs, and reflections on the explanations commonly heard as humans try to account for the unpredictable nature of life and existence. The text ends with a repeat of the initial statement. “Vanity of vanities, says Quoheleth, all things are vanity!” Yet this is not the last word in the book. An editor adds a bit of explanation and hope in an Epilogue that follows this statement: “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgement every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.”

Many years after Qoheleth’s observations, a family was fighting over an inheritance, according to St. Luke in today’s Gospel. One of them appealed to Jesus to resolve the dispute. But Jesus refused to get into the middle of the conflict. Instead, he warned against putting too much value on riches and possessing them. He told the story of a man whose harvest was greater than expected. The barn was too small to hold it all, so he tore it down and built a bigger one. Then he rejoiced that he would have plenty for many years to come. But, as it turns out, his life was to end that very night! God asked the man, “the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” (Lk 12:13-21) Jesus commented that this will be the result for anyone who holds on to treasure but is “not rich in what matters to God.”

The Psalmist (Ps 90) sings of the relationship between God and humans – the difference in perspective and years as they play out in the relationship. Our days are short. God’s are long – a thousand years are like a watch of the night, a few hours. Yet we are invited and reminded to open our hearts when we hear the voice of the Lord. And we hope and pray that we will be filled with joy and gladness all the days of our lives.

So, if the things we seek and work for are not going to last or bring satisfaction and peace to us, what are we to do? Qoheleth is right. Our time passes quickly. When we are children, time seems to take a long time to pass. As we get older, it seems to speed up every year.

St. Paul reminds the Colossians and all of us that we have been raised to new life in Christ. (Col 3:1-5, 9-11) The things that characterize life without Christ are not to be hallmarks of our lives. No lying, taking advantage of others, running roughshod over our competitors, etc. Our lives are to be based on Christ and his life. That is where and when the difference will truly appear, a perspective foreshadowed in the Epilogue of Ecclesiastes.

What, then, are we to do? All things are passing. No matter how hard we work to get ahead in life, there are no guarantees of fame, long life, health, or comfort. What do we do? Just give up and laze around?

What do we hold on to? How do we hold on? To what do we hold? Many ways to phrase the question, each with a slightly different perspective. Is there a life raft of some sort to which we can cling? What can help us persevere in our lives? What do we value? What gives us hope and strength to continue? Where is the oxygen-mask we can use on this flight?

I enjoy listening to the stories told on The Moth Radio Hour when I’m out on errands in town. Each episode includes four to six stories of true-life experiences, told by the individual to whom they happened. Some are sad, some are happy, many include funny moments, some are incredibly beautiful.

I was out on errands again today and heard three stories. One was about a young man’s very funny experience presenting a science experiment to second graders. Another told of an incident of road rage that turned into a chance to re-evaluate his life and set a new course. One featured a woman injured by prejudice in childhood and the example of her father’s strength that now gives her strength to stand up and protect others today. In each story, there was a gem of wisdom and I found myself nodding and smiling at their insights.

Yes, Qoheleth is right. So is Jesus. Things that we work so hard to get in our lives may not actually be worth all the effort we put into getting them. Whether they are valuable or not, our lives are totally not our own. We cannot control or know how long we will live, when we will depart this window of life, or what will happen after our departure.  All things are Vanity! Ephemeral! Passing! Even the asbestos checks my father used to joke about some people needing to have ready before their deaths probably won’t go very far…

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to hold on to. Many things are worth holding on to – laughter, joy, compassion, courage, hopefulness, community, shared efforts. As followers of Jesus, and hopefully as wise human beings, we reach out to each other. We offer a word of comfort or of hope when things are tough. We tell stories to lighten the mood. We remember the good times and search for seeds of hope in the hard times. We reflect on what we have learned through failure and hold firmly to the hope that we’ll continue to learn as we go along. We share what we have with those whose journey has left them needing the basics for life. We sit in silence with those who just need someone to be with them in time of deep loss. We share what we have learned with the children among us, preferably through stories, encouragement, songs, and humor. (Lectures just get boring…)

Life is not for the fainthearted. But life is good. It’s a marvelous gift overflowing from the great dance of LOVE that is our God. We hold on to the hope and promise of that love through thick and thin. Yes, what we see around us is passing and mysterious. That’s part of what makes it so wonderful. Each moment brings a new door or window opening, giving a glimpse of the underlying meaning of existence.

Here’s hoping you and I are able to hold lightly to the material things we need for our daily lives and keep in perspective the limitations of our efforts. Laugh frequently. Pray confidently. Hold close those with whom we share our lives.

The readings today are from the liturgy for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

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Posted by on Jul 17, 2022

Choosing the Better Part

Choosing the Better Part

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choose the better part!

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

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Posted by on May 22, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come Holy Spirit!

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Posted by on May 8, 2022

A Light to the Gentiles

A Light to the Gentiles

“Paul and Barnabas continued on from Perga and reached Antioch in Pisidia.” (Acts 13:14) These words describe an event early in the first missionary journey of St. Paul, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus. They caught my attention as I realized I really didn’t know where Perga or Antioch in Pisidia were located. So, I did a little research.

As it turns out, Antioch is the name of at least two cities in the ancient world. One is in what we know today as Syria. This is the Antioch in which followers of the way were first called Christians (Oil Heads). The other Antioch is a city in what is now Turkey, near the southwestern edge of the great central plains in the center of Turkey. This Antioch was known as Antioch in Pisidia (a region of Asia Minor and part of the Roman Empire).

Tarsus, the home city of St. Paul, is also in southern Turkey, but much farther east, closer to Syria. It was to Tarsus that Paul retreated for safety after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus led to his conversion. Following a time of retreat in the desert, he went to Jerusalem and gained acceptance from the community he once had persecuted there. But the authorities were angered by his conversion and he was not safe there, so the community in Jerusalem advised to go back to Tarsus, for everyone’s safety.

About eleven years after his conversion, the community in Antioch (in Syria) sent him on a missionary journey with Barnabas, one of the early followers of Jesus. They traveled to Cyprus and then to Turkey, landing at Perga on the southern coast in a region known as Pamphylia. From there they traveled over the mountains to Antioch in Pisidia.

The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter begin with the story of what happened in Antioch in Pisidia. (Acts 13:14, 43-52) As was their custom, when they first visited a new community, they went to the synagogue on the sabbath to worship. After the initial prayers, they were welcomed as visitors and asked if they would like to share anything with the community gathered there. A major section of the narrative is left out of today’s reading, but it’s good to know what it was. Paul stood up and went through the history of God’s dealings with the Jewish people, from the time of the exodus from Egypt to the present. He reminded them of the prophecies of the coming of a Messiah and of God’s care for them through the centuries. Then he presented the good news that the Messiah had come, had been put to death, and had been raised from the dead. As they left the synagogue that day, they were invited to return again the next week to tell more about these events.

The reading picks up again at this point, noting that many of the Jews and others who were converts to Judaism followed them and were excited to hear this news. Paul and Barnabas continued to speak with them during the week. The next sabbath, when they went to the synagogue, a large crowd, including non-Jews, gathered to hear them speak. Leaders of the synagogue became jealous and argued “with violent abuse” against what they were saying.

Paul and Barnabas did not back down in the face of this opposition. Instead, they boldly stated that although it was essential first to present this news to the Jewish community, they were now going to obey an ancient command of God – to become “a light to the Gentiles” and an “instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.” This command is from the Book of Isaiah (49:6). It would have been well known to this community in Antioch.

Non-Jewish residents of Antioch were delighted with the news of salvation extended to them. But opposition from the Jews of the city, including some prominent women, stirred up enough opposition that Paul and Barnabas were tossed out of the territory. So they continued their journey to Iconium, another city to the southeast of Antioch. We are told that they “were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.”

In this account, we see the beginnings of Paul’s mission to the Gentile world, to all of us who are not genetically descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Paul and Barnabas continued this practice of going first to the synagogue in communities they visited, and then to the Gentiles. They traveled extensively throughout Asia Minor (Turkey) and Greece. Eventually, they even went to Rome. Paul was martyred there in 68 A.D.

The second reading, from Revelation (7:9,14b-17) speaks of a great multitude of people “from every nation, race, people, and tongue” who stood in front of the throne of the Lamb. These people represent the entire world, gathered to praise the Lamb. They have survived a time of great suffering, washing their clothing in the blood of the Lamb, and thus being purified. The Lamb will provide all they need and lead them “to springs of life-giving water) as a shepherd. God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Not long after Jesus described himself as the good shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep follow him, St. John tells us of an encounter between the authorities and Jesus at the Feast of the Dedication (the re-dedication of the altar at the temple in 164 B.C.). The authorities were pressing him to state clearly whether he was the Messiah or not. Jesus refused to say so directly. Instead, he pointed to his works and his teachings. “The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” (Jn10:25) Then he told them the reason they didn’t believe in his teachings was that they were not among his sheep.

John quotes Jesus in the reading today (10:27-30). “My sheep hear my voice …” He describes his followers as his sheep, given to him by the Father. Then he sates, “The Father and I are one.”

The Shepherd, who is also the Lamb, calls people from all the world, Jews and Gentiles alike. He cares for them and provides for all their needs.

This is the great good news which we receive each day as we join in prayer and reflection on the scriptures. Ours is not a faith that excludes anyone. All are welcome. All share in the gift of salvation. All are called to share this good news with everyone we meet by the way we live our lives. We are all the sheep of the Good Shepherd – cared for, protected, and guided by the One who loves us.

Do I really believe this? Do you? Does my life reflect this reality? How does the love of the shepherd/lamb shine through in my life? Do I care for others whom I meet? Am I gentle and loving in my dealings with others? Will others see His love because my life is a window rather than an obscuring wall? Much to consider, both as individuals and as a community of faith.

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Posted by on Apr 10, 2022

Recognizing the Lord when He Comes

Recognizing the Lord when He Comes

Holy Week begins. This is the most important week in our entire year as Christians. The mystery of reconciliation of humans and the divine plays out graphically in the events we celebrate this week.

Sunday of Holy Week is known as Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. Traditionally, we begin our liturgy outside the church building. We gather with palms around our presider and hear the proclamation of the Gospel which tells of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem a few days before his arrest. Following the reading, we process into the building and continue with our liturgy, formally opening this week of prayer and celebration of the mystery in which we participate.

The Gospel reading for the blessing of the palms will be from one of the Synoptic Gospels – the three oldest versions of the events of Jesus’ life – as narrated by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  In Cycle C (which we celebrate in 2022), it is Luke’s account that we will hear.

These accounts all tell of Jesus coming into the city riding a young donkey. Kings and conquering military heroes of his day rode into cities mounted on great war horses, with banners flying, triumphal music playing, and crowds of grateful (or at least cheering) people to welcome them. Coming into town, riding a steed, and attracting a crowd of cheering people speaks to the Jewish dream of a Messiah in those times, a hero who will rescue the nation from captivity to a conquering nation (Rome). This was the kind of hero long-awaited – the kind many hoped Jesus would be.

Jesus, however, came riding a young donkey. One version says it had never been previously ridden by anyone. This is an important detail. In the prophecies of Zechariah, written almost 500 years earlier, there was a statement that the Messiah would come riding a donkey, just as had princes and leaders from before the period of kings in Israel. This person would be a leader who was humble and would bring peace. He would not be a warrior or a conquering hero. The symbolism of this entry riding on a young donkey would not have been lost on the people welcoming Jesus, nor was it lost on the authorities. In fact, they asked him to tell the people to be quiet and go away. They were quite likely afraid of the potential negative Roman response to the commotion. Jesus’ response was that even if the people went away, the very stones would shout out against the injustice of the social structure.

Another detail of interest in Luke’s telling of the tale is the question of palm branches. In Luke’s version of the story, there is no mention of palm branches or fronds having been waved in greeting or salute to Jesus. Palms are there in the other three gospels, but not in Luke.

In Luke, as in the others, the fact that people lay their cloaks out to make a road and that Jesus sat on cloaks that had been placed on the back of the donkey is noted. A cloak was a very valuable possession in those days. It was an outer garment that served as coat when the weather was cold and as a sleeping bag at night, especially for those who were not inside a building for the night. Ordinary folks were putting their coats on the ground for the donkey and any following closely behind to trod. That’s a pretty major commitment. I’m glad I didn’t have to pick my coat up and sleep in it after having a donkey and a large crowd of people walk over it!

Once inside the walls of Jerusalem, Jesus went to the temple. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell that Jesus disrupted the markets in the temple, chasing out the money-changers and others who were cheating the poor. He spent time teaching there as well, presumably not immediately after shaking everything up! The point is, he was not a quiet, meek, “what-ever” kind of guy. He had a vision and a mission. He was passionate about following the spirit of the Law and living what he had preached in the years leading to this visit to Jerusalem. He was not a person who could be ignored.

The first and second readings on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion are the same every year, as is the Psalm. Our attention is drawn to the events that followed Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

The first reading is from Isaiah (50:4-7), the Suffering Servant’s declaration of his determination to speak words of hope and encouragement to the people, despite opposition and persecution against him. This is a proclamation of great hope in the face of overwhelmingly negative odds. The prophet declares, “I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”

Psalm 22 is the one Jesus prayed on the cross. The psalms were much like our traditional “prayers” such as the Hail Mary or Our Father. These were prayers that could be offered any time and at any place by anyone. There’s a psalm for just about every situation in life. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” A cry for help when in desperate straits, with a conclusion that declares a joyful recognition of the Lord’s power to overcome all – “I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you.”

Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:6-11) includes another ancient hymn. Modern musicians have put it to music for our communities too, celebrating the great mystery of the incarnation. Jesus did not hesitate to become one of us and experience all that we experience, including rejection and death. God raised him up and gave him a name (power and authority) above all others. This is one of the earliest proclamations of our belief – “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

St. Luke’s telling of the Passion and Death of Jesus is the Gospel reading for Cycle C. It is a powerful story that begins with the narrative of the Last Supper and the gift of Jesus’ body and blood for our Eucharistic celebrations. It continues through the agony in the garden, Jesus’ trial, condemnation, carrying of the cross, and execution. His words of forgiveness and his prayers on the cross speak to us. We close with the quiet sorrow of his death and hasty burial in a borrowed tomb.

We are not called to be saddened by all of this. It is to be a source of great hope, but a hope that is so outrageously improbable and powerful that we are in awe of it. We enter this week with quiet hope for our own lives and the world in which we live. We pray for insight and the ability to see the Lord’s presence in all the times and ways he comes into our lives.

This can be a very busy week. There are liturgies and preparations for Easter. Work and school don’t necessarily take the time off. Yet it is a solemn time too. Liturgies for the blessing of the Holy Oils, Holy Thursday and Good Friday services, Easter Vigil, and then the great feast of Easter all await.

How will I mark this time? What things can wait, what need attention? What do I normally neglect that maybe I should spend some time doing?

May these final days of preparation for Easter be ones of peace and quiet joy, as we trust that through all the ups and downs of life, our God is with us, loving and supporting us each step along the way. Hosanna in the Highest.

Here are links to sample a couple of versions of the song from the Philippians that St. Paul shared with us.
In English, from Ken Canedo
In Spanish, from Pedro Rubalcava

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Posted by on Mar 27, 2022

Seeing with God’s Eyes

Seeing with God’s Eyes

I’m always intrigued by those puzzles in which there are two pictures that at first glance look the same, but have a caption reading, “Can you spot the differences between these two pictures?” There are small things that differ between the two pictures. One might have a yellow flower and the other a red one. One is missing a beach ball or has a baseball in the same place. I suspect those who develop these puzzles have a good laugh as they do their work. “How long will it take before the kids notice this difference?” Such puzzles help children develop an awareness of detail and subtle differences. They’re good for reminding adults that things are not always what they seem at first glance to be.

We have reached the Fourth Sunday in Lent, a Sunday known as Laetare Sunday. Laetare is the first word in Latin of the opening antiphon of the Mass, Laetare Jerusalem, Rejoice, O Jerusalem. This Sunday the celebrants will wear rose-colored vestments. (Teasingly, some folks refer to the color as pink, knowing that in our time and culture, pink is a color more commonly associated with women’s styles and fashion than with men’s vestments. The men smile and correct them, “It’s rose.” Another example of different ways of perceiving the same thing….)

Once again, we have two different sets of readings. Cycle A readings are used in communities which are celebrating the Scrutinies with their RCIA candidates. Cycle C readings are used in other communities.

Sometimes the readings have very different themes, but this day there are some common threads.

Cycle C readings begin with a section from the book of Joshua (5:9a, 10-12). It takes place after the people have crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land. For forty years, they have been in the desert and eaten manna each day. Now they are in the “Land of Milk and Honey,” a land of great abundance. They celebrate Passover there and eat the unleavened bread and parched grain of that meal. The very next day, the manna does not again fall. The “yield of the land of Canaan” is now theirs to enjoy.

Psalm 34 rejoices: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” The lowly will hear and be glad. “I sought the Lord and he answered me.” The Lord delivered the poor one from distress. So many examples of the goodness of the Lord, a goodness physically tasted by the Israelites in the text from Joshua.

St. Paul explains to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:17-21) that old things have passed away and new things have come into being for those who belong to Christ, those who are members of the Christian community. All are part of Christ’s body and share in the mission of reconciliation between God and humanity. This is not just the calling of the apostles. It is the calling of all Christians. Those outside the community may not perceive this difference, but those who have answered the call will shine forth the righteousness of God in their lives of faith as Christ’s ambassadors to the world.

The Gospel story in Cycle C is from Luke (15:1-3, 11-32). It’s known as the story of the Prodigal Son. A man has two sons. One begs for his share of the inheritance in advance. The other stays home with his father and works on the family land. The first goes off to another land and spends all his money frivolously. Eventually a famine comes. He has fallen to the point of needing to care for pigs, unclean animals, to earn any money at all. He in such a sorry position that he doesn’t even get offered the food fed to the pigs. Coming to his senses, he realizes his error in leaving home. He decides to return and beg his father for a job as a field hand.

As he approaches, his father sees him coming and runs out to meet him. A party and great celebration follow. The brother who remained at home is terribly upset and won’t come into the house to the party. His father begs him to come and celebrate, “because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again.”

The father in this story sees things as God does. We too are called in this parable to see through God’s eyes.

The Cycle A readings start out with the selection of David to be the successor of Saul as King of Israel. The Prophet Samuel (Sam 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a) is called to go to Bethlehem, to the home of a man named Jesse. Jesse has many sons, all of whom appear at first glance to be perfect for becoming king. Yet as each appears, the Lord tells Samuel that this is not the one. Finally, after all the sons at home have been examined, Samuel asks, “Are these all the sons you have?” As it turns out, there is one more, a boy who is out taking care of the sheep. No one even thought of him as a possible option.

Samuel calls for the boy to be summoned. When David appears, the Lord says, “There – anoint him, for this is the one!” When Samuel anointed David, “the spirit of the Lord rushed upon David.” David grew up to become the second king of Israel.

The Lord’s eyes perceived something in David that was not obvious to the rest of his family.

Psalm 23 follows in this set of readings. In this psalm, the composer declares, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” We are very used to seeing this as a beautiful and comforting sentiment. Traditional pictures show a well-groomed, rather effeminate man, or a healthy young boy, tending a flock of sheep on a beautiful afternoon. But this was not the lived reality of the world of the shepherd. There were wet, rainy days. There were muddy fields and cold nights. There was very low social status as the people moved from being traveling shepherds to having farms, cities, armies, and kingdoms to defend.

There were still a good number of shepherds in the time of David and Jesus, just as today there continue to be shepherds. Shepherds and other pastoralists (such as cowboys) still follow their animals from pasture to pasture. Many farmers also keep sheep and cattle as part of their operations. These animals provide many resources that are useful for the humans who tend them and sell or exchange those products as part of a way of earning their living.

To think of the Lord God as a shepherd brings a multitude of images. The notion of a God who would get his hands dirty, entering into the earthiness of our lives as humans, is striking. The notion that God is like a shepherd who knows what is best for the sheep and will protect them is comforting.

A lot depends on whose eyes are looking and from what perspective. What is different in one picture/scenario than in the other?

In his letter to the people of Ephesus, St. Paul speaks of light and darkness. Those who are not yet followers of Jesus are still living in darkness. Christians are children of light, from which goodness, truth, and righteousness flow. He advises them to bring anything that is not good to the light so it can be healed. The deeds of darkness are shameful and bring harm. Those that are brought into the light become visible and bring honor. In a culture in which honor and shame are shared across an entire family, this is tremendously important. The picture of a life is quite different when lived with honor in the light of Christ.

The Gospel for today is from St. John (9:1-41), the healing of the man blind from birth. In Jesus’ time, there were no social services for children born with disabilities. To give birth to a child born blind was a great tragedy. There were very few occupations, if any, that welcomed the blind and allowed them to learn a skill and support themselves as adults. Most disabled people found they must become beggars to survive. People passing by might help. More often, they simply pretended not to see or hear the beggar. Most likely, they simply tuned out the voices of the beggars as they themselves went about their day. (We sometimes do the same as we pass the unhoused on our streets, if truth be told.)

Jesus and his friends passed a blind man who was begging. The disciples wondered whose fault it was that the man had been born blind. In their culture, it was assumed that blindness was punishment for sin – whether the sin of the person who had been born blind or the sin of the parents. Jesus replied that no one had sinned and thereby caused this tragedy for the man in question. God’s works would become visible through the blind man and his misfortune.

Jesus spat on the soil, making a mud paste which he smeared on the man’s eyes. Spittle was believed to have healing characteristics in those days. Then he instructed the man to go wash off the mud at the Pool of Siloam. The man didn’t ask to be healed. He could have laughed and remained at his post. But instead, he went to the pool and washed. He played a role in the healing himself by following Jesus’ instructions. When he washed, his blindness was healed and he could see.

He came back from the pool a transformed man. He had been a beggar, dependent on the goodwill of strangers. Now he testified to what had happened. “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.”

He did not know where to find Jesus or even what Jesus looked like. He had been healed at the Siloam while Jesus had continued on his way.

St. John tells of the witness of the newly healed man and his courage in speaking the truth of his experience to the religious authorities and teachers in Jerusalem. The authorities did not believe him. His parents testified that he had indeed been born blind. He didn’t back down from his story of the healing received. He argued with those who claimed that Jesus was a sinner, therefore not possibly able to heal. He reminded them that God listens to those who are devout and do his will. He did not back down in his testimony and was eventually tossed out.

Jesus went to find him when he heard of the actions of the authorities. He asked the man whether he believed in the Son of Man. Upon learning that this was Jesus speaking with him, the man professed his faith.

Themes of seeing and blindness run throughout this story. They don’t follow standard patterns. The blind see and the seeing are blind. God’s eyes see differently than do the eyes of those who think they know what is possible, right, and good. God looks at the big picture and sees differences that we might not notice.

Today I ask myself, what is it that I am not seeing? Where are the blind-spots in my life? Do I really want to see? If I see, what will change? Do I want change? Where does God fit into all of this? What does God see that I don’t? Two pictures – Many things basically the same – A few things different.

Open my eyes, Lord. Help me to see your face… Help me to see.

Mass at Resurrection Catholic Community, Aptos, CA – You Tube

Open My Eyes – Jesse Manibusan

 

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Posted by on Mar 13, 2022

Seeing the Glory of God – Deeper than at First Glance

Seeing the Glory of God – Deeper than at First Glance

A couple of years ago, a painting came home from school. It was a watercolor, folded in half, then in half again, and then yet again, until only 1/8 of the picture showed. The young artist was not happy with it and didn’t want even to talk about it. I looked at it and found it puzzling. There were blues and whites, with maybe a bit of yellow.   The colors had clearly run more than the artist had hoped. It looked like salt had been sprinkled on parts of the painting, resulting in irregular starburst-type shapes. There was a bit of red, some very light and some more streaked.

I didn’t understand what the picture was supposed to represent and he wouldn’t tell me. It was totally unclear to me which end was even supposed to be up! I put it on the side table with other things from school. There it lay for at least a week, probably longer, and I was still no closer to recognizing its theme.

I picked it up and turned it around once or twice to see if that made more sense. It still didn’t identify itself.

 

 

 

 

Finally, one day in early spring, I turned it one more time. And the image jumped out at me. My eyes, in a sense, had been opened to see its subject and its beauty. It was a snowman! I wondered how I could have not seen it all the other times I looked at it. It was so clear when my eyes looked at it from the right perspective.

It now proudly adorns our freezer.

The readings for the Second Sunday of Lent remind me of this experience with the snowman. In the first reading Abram and God have been talking. (Gn 15:5-12, 17-18) God has told Abram that he will have many descendants, even though both he and his wife are old and she has been unable to have children. Then God also promised that Abram’s descendants would possess the land into which they had traveled, following the Lord’s instructions. Abram and his extended family were not a lot of people. He questioned how they would ever possess a land belonging to so many other peoples.

There was a tradition among the peoples of the time to make covenants (legal agreements) in very visual ways. Animals were taken and sacrificed. The bodies were split in two and laid across from each other, making a pathway between them. Then the parties to the covenant would walk through the pathway. In this way they pledged that if they broke the covenant, the same thing might be done to them. It was not something to be taken lightly.

The Lord God told Abram to bring five animals – a heifer, a she-goat, a ram, a turtle dove, and a pigeon – and sacrifice them. He was to place their carcasses in such as way as to create the ritual pathway. As the sun set, Abram entered into a deep trance and saw the Lord, represented by a fire pot and flaming torch, pass through, entering into the pathway between the sacrificed animals. In this way, the Lord pledged himself to a covenant with Abram and his descendants. Abram did not have to pass through the pathway for the covenant to be established. Only the Lord passed through. The land from Egypt to Mesopotamia (current Iraq) was to belong to the descendants of Abram. (Today these lands are still peopled by his descendants – both Arabs and Jews.)

Abram saw the glory of the Lord that night, entering into a sacred covenant.

The psalmist sings today of the deep presence of the Lord. “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” (Ps 27:1, 7-8, 8-9, 13-14) Don’t hide from me, but hear the sound of my call. The Lord is a refuge, so there’s nothing to fear. “I shall see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living…” All is focused on the presence and light of the Lord. All wait to see that goodness.

St. Paul writes to the community at Philippi (Ph 3:17-4:1) to encourage them to continue living in the way he taught them when he was with them in person. Controversies regarding whether it was necessary for Gentiles to become Jews in order to be Christians had reached them as well. Paul reassures them that all that is necessary is to believe and live in faith as they have first learned from him. As Christians, their citizenship, their loyalty, is in heaven. As such, all hope is in the saving power of Jesus, who will change our earthly bodies into heavenly, glorified ones, bringing all things to himself. At this point in time, all that is needed is to stand firm in faith and live as his followers.

The final reading, from St. Luke, tells of a very special experience of seeing. (Lk 9:28b-36)

Jesus went up on a mountain to pray. He took Peter, James, and John with him. As he prayed, his appearance changed, becoming filled with dazzling brightness. He was speaking with Moses (representing the Law and covenant) and Elijah (representing the prophets) when his friends woke up. They had fallen asleep as he was praying. They saw the glory that enveloped Jesus as he spoke with Moses and Elijah. Peter, ever the practical and impulsive one, offered to put up three tents, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. As he spoke, a cloud appeared and a voice spoke from the cloud. “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” Then the vision passed and Jesus was there alone. As they went back down the mountain, they were silent.

What was there to say? Who would ever believe it? Did they even see it? Imagine if you were witness to this kind of transformation of someone you thought you knew! You too might be at a loss for words or uncertain whether anyone would ever believe your words if you spoke of it.

We call this experience of Jesus the Transfiguration. A transfiguration is a complete change of form or appearance from the ordinary to something quite beautiful and extraordinary. In many ways, it’s a question of what is seen. On certain days, or in certain lights, or under certain conditions, we perceive quite ordinary things differently. Somewhat like the painting of the snowman.

How does Jesus’ transfiguration speak to me today? How does it speak to you? What wonderful things are there in life that are just waiting for me to see in all their splendor? Where does the glory of God peek through into my days and my world? How about yours?

May our eyes be opened today to see deeper than first glance – to see the glory of God present in our world.

Here’s an activity you can do with children to celebrate the Transfiguration.

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Posted by on Mar 6, 2022

Don’t Go Looking for Trouble

Don’t Go Looking for Trouble

One of my favorite hymns is “On Eagle’s Wings,” by Michael Joncas. This hymn is based on Psalm 91, which we sing as part of the liturgy on the First Sunday of Lent. The psalmist speaks of all the benefits of trusting in God. A key promise is, “No evil shall befall you … for to his angels he has given a command … that they guard you in all your ways.” The Lord promises to support those who cling to him in trust when in the midst of distress. The Lord will deliver and glorify the one who trusts.

This theme of trust in the word of the Lord in times of trouble is present in the first reading as well. This is from the book of Deuteronomy (26:4-10). This book begins with a short history of God’s dealings with the Israelites and care for them from the time they left Egypt up to about a month before they entered the Promised land. A series of teachings about the Covenant with God follows. Then comes a section about the Law and how the people are to live. This is the section from which we hear today. The book ends with the final words of Moses before his death just outside the new land to which they had at last arrived.

Moses reminds the people of God’s care and their responsibilities in obeying the Law. Today he speaks of their responsibility to give thanks with a sacrifice of the first fruits of the harvest each year. They are to speak of their history, beginning before their time in Egypt, through the Exodus, and the blessings of this new land in which they now live – “flowing with milk and honey.” Their gifts are to be presented to the Lord and they are to “bow down in his presence.” They have arrived and at last enjoy the blessings of the Lord’s care for them in this land.

Many years later, St. Paul wrote a letter to Christians in Rome. He spoke to the Roman Christians of the role of the Jewish people in salvation history. At one point he reflects on the fact that even though Gentiles have never known and obeyed the Law, they can be saved by believing that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. He quotes the book of Deuteronomy in which it is written that the commands of the Lord are not far away or impossible to reach. They are “very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.” (Dt 30:14) In this same way, those not bound by the Law are saved by the word that is very near. Believing in the heart and confessing that belief verbally leads to salvation. Everyone who calls on the Lord will be saved.

Given the history of God’s intervention in human history to care for his people and rescue them in times of trial, the experience of Jesus in the desert is not too surprising. St. Luke tells us that Jesus went into the desert when he left the Jordan after his baptismal experience of the presence and love of the Father. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and so went to pray. (When the Spirit comes upon a person, it’s an amazing experience, but it takes time to process what has happened.) For forty days, Jesus prayed and fasted.

Forty days is a period long enough for new habits and skills to be learned. In Judeo-Christian history, it’s a reminder of the 40 years spent by the Israelites in the desert between the Exodus from Egypt and their entrance into the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. It’s also a very long time for humans to go without food, or with very little food. At the end of his forty days fast, Jesus was probably tired and was definitely hungry.

In this weakened state, he had a visitor. The Greek term that we translate as devil means a false accuser or slanderer. This visitor tried to convince Jesus to do something out of the ordinary to appease his hunger – to use his new-found relationship with the Father for his own benefit. Prove that you’re the Son of God. Just turn a few stones into loaves of bread and you won’t have to be hungry anymore. You’re special. God’s own son. Take advantage of it! But Jesus would have none of that. He quoted Scripture to remind the visitor that “One does not live by bread alone.”

Well then. That didn’t work. Time to try something else.  Up to a mountain top. See all the kingdoms of the world. “I shall give to you all this power and glory.” It’s mine. I can give it away. Just worship me and you can have it – power and glory. But Jesus turns that down too. He quotes the Law: “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”

OK, so this guy wants to quote Scripture all the time. One more thing to try, thinks the visitor. Here’s the great temple of Jerusalem. Way up on the very topmost peak. Now throw yourself down from here. After all, Scripture says, “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you … With their hands they will support you…” The visitor quotes Psalm 91.

Jesus rejects all these temptations – to use his power and position to meet his own needs, to gain earthly power, or to force God’s hand and provoke a miraculous intervention to save his life. Talk about fame if that happened! But Jesus rejects them all. “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” (Dt 6:16) Once again we return to the Law as presented in the book of Deuteronomy.

What is the lesson for us? I think it could be summed up with the simple admonition, “Don’t go looking for trouble.” It’s easy to think we have all the answers or that we are special because of our education, our social status, our job, our family, our good looks, or whatever. Sometimes we are also tempted to take advantage of these characteristics with which we may have been gifted. Or we are tempted to think that a spiritual experience makes us better judges of what another person should do. We might also think that God will get us out of any trouble we get into, so what’s to lose?

There are many ways the visitor who tempted Jesus can whisper lies to us as well. Even Jesus had to deal with this visitor. Jesus saw through the visitor’s offers and lies. He relied on his faith and its traditions to guide his thinking about how he was to proceed and what his ministry would be.

As we journey through the season of Lent, we too are called to trust in the Lord. This is a good time to turn to scripture – read a Gospel or the Acts of the Apostles. Study the documents of the Council. Read one of Pope Francis’ books. He’s written some fantastic ones. They’re short and filled with wisdom.

And then, take time for prayer. It doesn’t need to be filled with a lot of words. Take a walk with Jesus. Open your eyes to the beauty of the place in which you live. See the flowers. Listen to the birds. Smell the earth or the water. Notice the gifts of God in your life. See the beauty of the people you meet along the way. Smile.

Troubles will come soon enough. They come to everyone. When they come, God will be there with us. Angels will be there to support us, sent by God. We may not see them, but they will be present, offering strength on which we can draw if we remember to seek and hope for it. Sometimes, we even meet their helpers along the way – our sisters and brothers in faith who reach out to accompany us on our journey.

Don’t go looking for trouble! Just keep your eyes open for God’s presence supporting you when trouble comes around.

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Posted by on Feb 20, 2022

Bearing the Image of the Heavenly One

Bearing the Image of the Heavenly One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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