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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 Jul 10, 2022

Something Very Near to You

Something Very Near to You

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is written in the Law?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would it be closer for you or me? Hmmm.

How can all of this be possible?

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by on Jul 3, 2022

Up from the Ruins – The Kingdom of God is Here

Up from the Ruins – The Kingdom of God is Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by on Jun 26, 2022

“All er Nothin”

“All er Nothin”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by on Jun 19, 2022

We remember, We Celebrate, We Believe

We remember, We Celebrate, We Believe

The second Sunday after Pentecost we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. On this day we remember Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper, when he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. He told them to take it and eat it. It was his body, given for them. They were to do the same in remembrance of him. He also took the cup of wine that would normally close the meal with a toast to God. He told his friends it was the cup of the new covenant in his blood. Again, “Do this … in remembrance of me.”

How, you ask, do we know this? It’s there in the Gospels, but they were mostly written later. Today, however, we hear one of the earliest voices telling of this event. St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, tells us of Jesus’ words and actions on this last night of his life. (1 Cor 11:23-26) Paul doesn’t say he was an eyewitness. He wasn’t and never makes that claim. But he tells us that he is passing on to us what he had been told by the eyewitnesses. This is what Jesus did and said.

It’s important to understand what it means to remember in Jewish tradition. Remembering means to enter again into the reality of what happened. When we remember, we are present at the event. When we share in the bread and wine at Mass, we are present with the disciples in that upper room when Jesus spoke those words and shared that bread and wine. A traditional Jewish saying goes like this, “Our ancestors crossed the Red Sea and our feet are wet.” Jesus gave that bread and wine to his friends, and we receive his body and blood just as they did. We are now part of the New Covenant with God.

OK, so why the emphasis on eating and drinking a sacrificial victim? And how can bread and wine take the place of a real animal sacrifice?

Humans have a long history of offering something of value as a sacrifice to their deities. It may be to ask for a favorable outcome in daily activities. It may be to ask the deity to have mercy and take away something that is causing hardship to the community. It may be to give thanks for blessings received. There are many reasons for offering a sacrifice.

In pastoralist communities, especially before money began to be used commonly, a gift of a young animal as sacrifice was not uncommon. The animal might be killed and the entire body burned in sacrifice. Sometimes, choice parts of the animal were burned and the rest was shared and eaten by the priests or together with the community. Blood of the animal might be poured on the altar and burned as part of the sacrifice too.

For the Hebrew people, the blood of a lamb held a powerful meaning. It was the blood of the lambs sacrificed for the meal shared by the people on the first Passover that marked their doors and protected their children from the Angel of Death who moved through Egypt, killing the firstborn children of people and animals. This truly was blood that marked a covenant of protection between God and his people.

We see a different tradition of sacrifice in the first reading, from the book of Genesis (14:18-20). Abram, not yet known as Abraham, had entered the land promised to him by God, along with his brother, Lot, and their extended family. They had been there many years already, including a time in Egypt. Abram was living in the western part of the land and Lot had moved with his family to the eastern side.

There were many kings in the area and a great battle broke out among them. Lot was captured by those in the east. Abram gathered a large group of men from his side and set out to rescue Lot. His actions were successful. It was quite a battle and a major victory for Abram and his allies. The victorious kings gathered to celebrate with Abram and praise his success. One of the men who came was Melchizedek. He was known as king of Salem and was a priest. Melchizedek brought bread and wine to offer in sacrifice to God. He offered the sacrifice and blessed Abram, describing him as “blessed by God most High, the creator of heaven and earth.” As was customary, Abram gave a tenth of what he had in thanks to the priest.

Melchizedek is remembered in Jewish history and celebrated in Psalm 110. “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” Jesus is also described as a priest forever, the new high priest who needed only to offer sacrifice once to redeem all the people – to restore harmony between the Most High and humanity.

We again see bread blessed, broken, and shared in today’s Gospel. St. Luke (9:11b-17) tells of the day a large crowd of people went out into the countryside to hear Jesus and bring their sick to be healed. At the end of the day, it was time to eat. Jesus’ disciples asked him to send the people to the local villages to get something to eat. But Jesus responded, “Give them some food yourselves.” This was not at all feasible to the minds of the disciples. There were around 5,000 men in the crowd! (That didn’t necessarily include any women and children.) They had among themselves only five loaves and two fish. Nowhere nearly enough to feed all of those people.

But Jesus was undeterred. “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty.” (Fifty people would be about like having a good family party.) He took the little bit of food he and the disciples had, offered a blessing, broke the loaves and fish, and gave them to the disciples to feed the crowd.

Who knows whether people laughed or stayed solemnly quiet at this bold action of faith. But food was in plenty for all. In fact, there was more than enough. After all had eaten their fill, the scraps were picked up and filled twelve baskets! Did people share what they had brought with them? Not at all unlikely. Does that make it less of a miracle? Not really. We humans don’t always share very freely.

One commentator on the Gospels, Stephen Wilbricht, CSC, in a series of explanations for Lectors and readers of the Gospels, has noted that this story is placed between the account of the time Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to preach the good news and the first time that Peter professed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. The preaching is followed by service (the feeding of the hungry). Out of that service, came the realization that the time of salvation was at hand. The Messiah had come at last.

The fact that there were twelve baskets of food left is also important. Twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve disciples. Twelve baskets of food. This is enough for all and represents all.

We remember. We celebrate. We believe.

Today we remember what Jesus has done for us. We celebrate and participate in it. We believe what we have heard. We also believe what we have seen and experienced. We have seen communities of peoples of all nations coming together as one family of God. We have seen resources shared. We see work for social justice. We hope for peace and security for all to return to our world.

This day we begin a three-year celebration of Renewal of our understanding and celebration of this mystery of Jesus’ gift of his Body and Blood. We celebrate this gift in our Eucharist. It is the “source and summit” of our lives as Christians, as taught by the bishops in Lumen Gentium – the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church – at Vatican II.

Marty Haugen wrote a song and Mass setting many years ago that sums it all up nicely. The refrain goes like this:

“We remember how you loved us to your death, and still we celebrate for you are here; and we believe that we will see you when you come in your glory, Lord. We remember, we celebrate, we believe.”

Let us remember today and in the days to come. Let us celebrate this great gift. And Lord, help us to believe always this great good news of God’s presence and loving entrance into our lives.

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Posted by on Jan 30, 2022

Called to Action by Love

Called to Action by Love

One theory regarding the universe is that God created everything, set it in motion, and then sat back to watch how history would unfold. In this scenario, God is simply a character like a watchmaker who has a master vision of how all the gears will work together and accomplish the desired outcome – keeping time in a regular rhythm.

God, as we know God, is not a glorified watchmaker. Though there is much we do not know about God and much we only surmise, we do know from the Gospels and from the letters of St. John that God is love. St. Paul goes so far as to say that the most important thing for any of us is love. Underlying all the wonderful gifts God gives to the community are faith, hope, and love. These three gifts from God are all that remain when everything else is taken away. Of these three gifts, “the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13)

Since love is so fundamental, it’s important to understand what is meant by the word love. Greek, the language in which the Christian scriptures are written, distinguishes among different forms of love. One is the sensual, bodily love that we see so often on television and in movies – romantic love or passionate love for something or someone. It is known as eros. Another is the affectionate caring between equals, including friends and family. This form of love is called philia. A third is agape, the word used by St. Paul in his first letter to the community in Corinth. The love God has for us is called agape. Agape is also the love of parents for children, or spouses for each other. It assumes a willing of good for the other.

In the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we see examples of love as a call to action. The story of Jeremiah the prophet begins with his call by God to become a prophet. Jeremiah was a young man, probably in his early 20s, when he heard the Lord’s call to become a prophet. (Jer 1:4-5,17-19) Called even before his birth, the Lord chose him to call the people of Israel to faithfulness to the covenant, away from worship of foreign gods. He lived and worked through the rule of three kings and the conquest of Jerusalem by Babylonian forces. He remained in Jerusalem when it was destroyed, still calling the people to worship only the Lord.

Like other prophets, Jeremiah faced much opposition. In fact, he objected to becoming a prophet when he was first called by the Lord because he knew prophets were never well-received. However, the Lord didn’t back down. After telling him about the coming defeat of Israel by Assyria, the Lord promised he would never abandon Jeremiah.

At times it certainly seemed as if the Lord might have abandoned him, but always the Lord supported him in his faithful and courageous witness as he continued to speak out. Though the text doesn’t spell out this thought, it seems that God’s love and care for His people is seen through the call of Jeremiah to remind them of their mutual relationship. God, through Jeremiah, calls them back again and again. Jeremiah’s actions reflect that love for God and for his own nation during times of war and catastrophic defeat.

Jesus too faced opposition as he began his ministry (Lk 4:21-30). Having been awakened to his calling at the Jordan River, he began to preach of God’s love and to heal the sick. In his own village, he read the words of Isaiah regarding the coming of the kingdom of God. When he shared with those who had known him from childhood that he was the one of whom Isaiah spoke, some expressed doubt that it could be true. “Haven’t we known him all his life? Isn’t he the son of Joseph the carpenter?” Jesus did not back down. Instead, he reminded them that prophets are often not appreciated by their own people. In fact, even foreigners sometimes benefited from the help of prophets while the Jewish people were left unaided. Faith is a necessary foundation before help and healing can be received.

Jesus did not back down when challenged. He continued to move forward in his ministry, healing those open to receive it and teaching those open to hear and accept God’s love for them. His response to God’s call was one of loving service to those he met as he traveled through Galilee, Samaria, Judea, and even outside Israel to Tyre and Sidon to the north.

St. Paul makes clear to the people of Corinth that although spiritual gifts are wonderful and can build up the community, the most important things are those that underlie gifts such as tongues, prophecy, and healing. (1 Cor 12:31-13:13) Without love to ground them, all the other gifts are worthless. Love, agape, gives meaning to all. Paul uses verbs in Greek to express what love is and is not. For us, love is the noun and adjectives describe its varied expressions. Nevertheless, it’s useful to think of each as part of an action founded in love. Love is not something that just sits around observing the world. Love must be active. God is love and that love overflows into all of creation. God is active love. As the Body of Christ, we are also called to active love. As we live in this love day by day, we will see ever more clearly God’s presence and God’s presence will be ever more visible in us.

Where will I bring love today? Into what hidden corner will I help God’s love to shine? Will a child smile because I reached out? Will an immigrant find legal help? Will someone hungry get a good meal? Will someone who needs a friendly ear find mine ready to listen? Will a widow receive a note letting her know she is not alone and forgotten? Will someone hear a word of encouragement from me?

Love is a not a static object that can be put on a shelf and admired. Love is active and we are called to action. Together we will move mountains and with God’s help, we’ll remake the earth, beginning with our own little corner of it!

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Posted by on Jan 23, 2022

Anointed to Bring Glad Tidings to the Poor!

Anointed to Bring Glad Tidings to the Poor!

Glad tidings, new beginnings, a year acceptable to the Lord… The readings for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time are rich in hope and new beginnings. They are also practical in their orientation – not the dreams of what could never be. These are focused on how to be part of bringing a new order into being.

The land of Judah had been conquered and its cities and temple destroyed. The people had been taken into exile in a great land to the east, Babylon. All seemed lost forever. How could they ever return and become a nation again? Yet by the time today’s first reading opens, a new ruler, Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, has conquered Babylon and ordered that the people of Judah be allowed to return to their ancestral lands. Furthermore, the peoples among whom they were living were to give them precious metals, jewels, and other valuable objects to help them on their journey – to pay their way and establish new homes. The items taken from the temple were to be returned to their priests, so the ancient form of temple sacrifice and worship might be restored.

As the first of the people reach Jerusalem, Ezra, the priest who accompanies them, and Nehemiah, the administrator who has come with them to help them rebuild a city, the temple, and a government, call all the people together. Ezra stands on a high platform, so all can see and hear him. All adults and children old enough to understand are present. Ezra reads the Law to them – the Torah.

The Torah is more than just the Ten Commandments. The Torah contains all the rules and expectations for life in Jewish families and communities. The story of creation and the history of their community through the Exodus to the end of their time in the desert before crossing the Jordan River into Palestine, all are included in the Torah. It is a foundational collection and sets up the standards by which this new community, just returned to the homeland of their ancestors, will live and govern themselves. The reading of the Law begins at dawn and continues to midday. It is overwhelming to hear the entire story. Many people cry in response.

Nehemiah and Ezra encourage the people to rejoice. It’s a time of new beginnings. A time of recommitment to an ancient way of life. A time to celebrate a day holy to the Lord, the One who accompanies them always and will be their strength as they rebuild their community. (Neh 8:2-4a, 5-6,8-10)

St. Luke also writes of beginnings in the Gospel reading today. (Lk 1:1-4, 4:14-21) This reading is a bit confusing because it includes two different sections of the Gospel, the formal introduction to the work and an early event in Jesus’ public ministry. Luke writes to Theophilus and addresses him as “most excellent.” He writes in the form and style of Greek used by the educated and upper classes. He wants Theophilus to know what has happened and that the events narrated are based on eye-witness reports.

We have already heard the stories told in the first three chapters of this Gospel – the announcement of the birth of John, the annunciation, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the births of John and Jesus, and all the things that accompanied these events. Jesus’ baptism and the time he spent in prayer in the desert are also skipped over in today’s readings, though we hear of them on other Sundays.

Today we hear that “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” and began teaching. News about him spread like wildfire through the region. When he returned to his hometown, Nazareth, everyone was excited to see and hear him. All gathered at the Synagogue that Sabbath to see and hear him. It was common for visitors to be invited to do one of the readings and share thoughts about it (as in, give a little homily). Jesus was invited to do just this.

The reading Jesus chose was from the writings of the prophet Isaiah. It immediately follows the description of the one the Lord declares will be his servant, one of the Servant of the Lord oracles. Jesus read the scripture: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…” Anointed for what? To bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. The Servant of the Lord proclaims through words and actions a year acceptable to the Lord – a year of forgiveness and new beginnings.

Jesus was only one individual person and his message not always happily received. In order for the poor to be helped, captives to be freed, and all the other promises of the year of the Lord, it would take more help and more time. His teachings attracted followers, some of whom he selected to take his teachings out to the world after his time on Earth ended. The Good News spread farther than just the people who walked with him through Galilee, Samaria, and Judea.

St. Paul took the Gospel to Corinth, a Greek seaport, and a community of followers of The Way grew there. It was not a community of people who always got along well with each other. As a result, some of the more important writings about living in community came from letters Paul sent to the folks in Corinth when the battles among them became too disruptive.

The image of the body as a metaphor for the Christian community comes from St. Paul. (1 Cor 12:12-30) He reminds us that our bodies have many parts and all are necessary. Then he goes a step further and speaks of the Body of Christ. We are all part of Jesus’ body here and now. Each of us has a role to play. Some are more highly respected, perhaps, but all are equally essential. In fact, we take extra care of the less respectable parts of our bodies, and we should do the same with those less respected members of Christ’s body. And just as no part of our body chooses which part it is to be, so too we don’t decide which gifts we will receive. The Spirit gives the gifts and each of us is called to use the one(s) received.

How does this tie in? Jesus, the Servant of the Lord, came to proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor. This year is not a calendar year. It’s the beginning of a new way of being, a new age in human history and the relationship between God and humans. Each part of Jesus’ body has a role in this. No part is unnecessary.

The relationship between God and humans, celebrated in the Torah, announced to the people upon their return from exile in Babylon, and brought to its fullness in Jesus, the anointed one of God, is our relationship too. We are the sisters and brothers of Jesus, children of God. We too are anointed to bring glad tidings to the poor, release to prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and a year acceptable, treasured, valued by the Lord.

How do we live out this call? Do we hear this call in the small details of our lives? Is there a smile for others waiting in line at the grocery store? Do we patiently answer a young child’s “why” yet one more time? Do we share what we have with others? Can we wait a bit for something we want but don’t really need if that will allow giving help to another? Can we still our tongues and patiently work with folks who might not see the same solutions to problems that we see? Are we willing to be bearers of glad tidings?

Let’s help each other along the way. We are the Body of Christ, anointed to bring good news to our world.

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Posted by on Dec 19, 2021

God’s Recipe for Change: Start Small

God’s Recipe for Change: Start Small

Imagine with me for a moment what might happen in a world in which the rich and powerful controlled all the resources and took advantage of those who were weak or in a position of less power on a regular basis. In this world, maybe no one thought twice about whether this was the right thing to do or not. There was a sense that those who had the power and wealth had earned it through their own hard work and those who had little were in that situation because they didn’t work hard enough.

Now suppose a group of folks who have lived lives of privilege in this world began for one reason or another to think that maybe with a little help, those who had barely enough to survive would have a better chance of earning enough to live a more secure life if they had just a little bit more money for food, or maybe got to attend better schools, or had a roof over their heads. So they declare a War on Poverty and begin spending money to make big changes in availability of food, housing, and education. And things begin to get better for those at the bottom of the ladder. Poverty doesn’t go away. Those at the bottom still have little chance of jumping clear up into the top ranks of their society, but their lives get easier and more secure.

Often we think that change has to come through formal programs, with large amounts of money being spent. In fact, for that kind of broad economic and societal change, large amounts of money are necessary in a big society. But what leads those who can put such sums together to take such steps to help?

We get a hint in the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. In these readings we see what might be described as God’s recipe for change. The Lord God often wants to see big changes in the way we interact with each other and with God. But God doesn’t come riding onto the scene like some sort of hero in a movie, with guns blazing and large numbers of soldiers on either side. God works very quietly through ordinary people.

Micah was a prophet around the same time as Isaiah and Jeremiah. He came from the hill country and called the people of Judah back to faithfulness to the covenant. This was during the time when the Assyrians were conquering the kingdoms to the north. Micah warned the people and their leaders that God was not happy with their worship of idols and failure to take care of the poor and unprotected of their world. He warned that Judah would also be conquered and the people sent into exile. Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed as punishment for their unfaithfulness.

But Micah didn’t stop with the prophecy of destruction of the nation, he spoke God’s promise to restore the land and its people (Mi 5:1-4a). A new ruler would come, born of an ancient family, and lead the people to true peace and prosperity. The family of the new ruler would be from Bethlehem, a very small town close to Jerusalem, but so small that conquering kings wouldn’t bother with it. Bethlehem was the hometown of David, the second king of Israel. The Lord had promised that the Messiah would come from David’s line.

Jeremiah, another prophet from about the same period, mentioned that Micah’s teaching influenced King Hezekiah to begin some reforms. The early Christians remembered Micah’s words promising the coming of the Messiah and recognized Jesus as the one whose coming had been predicted so long ago.

The author of Hebrews (Heb 10:5-10) also speaks of the work of one who comes with little fanfare or wealth, but is responsible for bringing about major changes. Jesus comes not with an army of angels, but rather with only his own human body and the willingness to obey the will of the father. Jesus speaks the words of the Father so faithfully that it leads to the cross. He continues to obey, faithful even in the face of a terrible public execution. “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,” he says, quoting the prophets. But he gives his own body, his own life, in fulfillment of his Father’s will. This sacrifice replaces the old tradition of animal sacrifice. Doing God’s will is what matters in the end, not how many animals are sacrificed.

Again, we see one person responding to God’s call and spreading the news of God’s care for all people. The faithfulness of that one person has been multiplied countless times in the centuries that followed his life.

Finally, today we hear the story of Elizabeth and Mary (Lk 1:39-45). Two cousins. One an older woman who had never been able to conceive and bear a child. The other a girl barely old enough to have a child. A girl who is not even married or making a home with her husband yet. The girl, having received news of her cousin’s pregnancy, hurries to visit her cousin and rejoice with her. When Elizabeth sees Mary approaching, she calls out a beautiful greeting, inspired by the Holy Spirit. “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Mary is blessed because she believed the promise delivered by God’s angel and consented to be part of God’s recipe for change in the world. She would bear and raise a son who would grow up to be the long-awaited one through whom God would change the world. Elizabeth, pregnant with the final prophet, the one who would introduce Jesus to the world through his own followers, salutes her cousin as the child in her womb leaps for joy.

Each of these stories tells of individuals whose response to God’s call set in motion changes that have affected millions of people. Much of what we take for granted today did not exist before people received God’s message of love and care for the least protected or powerful among us. Schools for all. Hospitals that care for all who come in need of help. Public libraries. Women’s rights. Representative government. Health care for the poor and middle class, as well as the rich. So many, many blessings we all take for granted.

Is it all done yet? No. Is there more that needs to be done to make this world more in line with God’s vision? Absolutely. Do we need to have armies or major financial backing to begin to make a difference? No. We just need to keep our eyes and ears open to hear the messages sent to each of us by our God. We each have a role to play in God’s plan. Like a good recipe for bread or stew, many things come together to make a rich and satisfying dish. The work of many individuals alone and together also bears fruit.

In this final week of Advent, let’s take a little time to listen for the call of God. What is it that God is calling us to do? What gifts and talents do we have that we can share? What are we already doing?

Few of us will ever be famous or recognized for major changes to the structure of society or to the sum total of human knowledge. But each of us is called to do something. It may be something very small. That’s OK. Just be open and do what the Lord sends that needs your touch. And together we can begin to bridge the chasms of disagreement, anger, distrust, and even hatred that so afflict our world today.

God’s recipe for change: Start small.

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Posted by on Oct 17, 2021

How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You?

How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You?

How many times do I have to tell you? Which of us has never heard this question addressed to us by an exasperated parent or teacher? Sometimes it’s an issue of not having paid attention. Sometimes it’s a question of not believing it applies to us. Sometimes it’s an issue of thinking that what is being said is too good to be true – or too bad to be believed.

Jesus had the same problem with his followers. In the Gospel reading for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark tells us of a time when two of the disciples, James and John, approached Jesus with a confidential request: “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” (Mk 10:35-45) Jesus was flabbergasted (totally amazed) by their request. “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (To be baptized means to be plunged into something.)

Now Jesus has been telling his friends for a while already that he is going to Jerusalem and there he will be turned over to the authorities to be tortured and killed. No one can comprehend that this is really going to happen. I would guess they think he’s just a worrywart or exaggerating, but he was absolutely serious. This is why he asked James and John if they could do what he was going to have to do. They brashly assured him they would be able to do whatever he had to do, after all, what made him any more capable of dealing with whatever came than they were!

As it turns out, Jesus assures them, you will indeed drink from the same cup – face death for proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God – and in fact, they later did die as martyrs (witnesses).

When the others caught wind of this conversation, they were incensed. Who do these guys think they are? As the anger and conflict among them grew, Jesus intervened. He told them once again what would be demanded of them as his followers. He spoke of the social reality that existed in the world of non-Jews, the Gentiles (Romans, Greeks, and other surrounding nations). Large numbers of people were slaves. Estimates are that 1/3 of the people were slaves. Most of the rest were not particularly well-off. Only the rulers and upper classes lived well. They considered themselves to be better than the rest and didn’t hesitate to abuse and take advantage of everyone below them. Slaves were seen and treated as less than human, despite the fact that anyone could be enslaved for something as out of their control as the loss of a family’s income that plunged them into debt. If a debt could not be paid, the whole family and their belongings could be sold to pay the debt!

Jesus spoke words at this point that echoed ones we all have heard so often. Mark doesn’t have him saying, “How many times do it have to tell you?” But there’s the same sense of that in what Jesus says. The disciples are told point blank that if they want to be great, they must behave as if they were slaves to all they meet. The reason for this is that he has not come to be a master. He has come to serve as if he were a slave and to give his life as a ransom. This is not the first time he has told them this. It won’t be the last. Eventually, he will show them, but that comes later…

Isaiah spoke many generations earlier of the mystery of the Suffering Servant who would give his life as an offering for sin, see his descendants in a long life, and be the channel through which the Lord’s will can be accomplished. “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” (Is 53:10:11) This is from the fourth song of the suffering servant, the one most fully developed.

Jesus knew of these prophecies. He took them seriously, though many probably thought of them as more symbolic than realistic. Yet they fit into an ancient theme in Jewish history and thought. While the Israelites were traveling in the desert after they left Egypt, they were instructed to set up a tent for the Lord. Only certain people were allowed to enter the tent and only at certain times. If those conditions were not met, it could be fatal for the intruders and their families. Aaron, brother of Moses and priest ordained and authorized to offer sacrifices to the Lord, discovered this the hard way when two of his sons entered the tent and died. He was then required to offer a sacrifice of atonement for their actions or die himself. This is all described in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 16.

Aaron’s sacrifice included the use of two male goats. One was sacrificed and offered to the Lord inside the tent. The other was symbolically loaded down with the guilt for the sins of his sons, himself, and all the people. Then that goat was driven out into the desert to die there, taking the sins of the people with it. This goat came to be known as the scapegoat, perhaps because it was sometimes known as the “escaping goat.” Each year after that, on a date set by the Lord for each year, the high priest was to offer sacrifice on behalf of the people. After the temple in Jerusalem was built, the very innermost court was called the Holy of Holies. The high priest was the only person allowed to enter the Holy of Holies and offer the sacrifice of atonement there. The rest of the people were also to make sacrifices in their personal lives on that day. This tradition has continued to the present day, without the inclusion of temple sacrifices, on the Day of Atonement each fall.

The Suffering Servant in Isaiah would be the one on whom the guilt of all would rest. His sacrifice would bring a restoration of the good relationship with the Lord for all the people.

This theme arises again in the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 4:14-16). The author speaks of our great high priest, Jesus, the Son of God, who has passed through the heavens. This high priest does not need to offer a sacrifice for his sins and those of the people each year. Nor is he one who cannot understand human frailty and our tendency to sin, to miss the goal of acting lovingly. This high priest has shared everything there is to experience about being human, including suffering, loss, and death, but he has never sinned. Because our high priest is Jesus, we can approach the throne of God with absolute confidence, knowing we will be received with grace, mercy, and the help we need going forward.

So the question arises: Have I heard this time? Do I get it? Do I understand that I am not the one who will be in the driver’s seat? I am not to assume others will do my will. I am to be the one who seeks to meet the needs of my sisters and brothers, without demanding that they change or try to do things my way. Am I willing to serve as Jesus served? Am I willing to try to love as Jesus loved? Am I willing to learn to forgive as Jesus did?

The Kingdom of Love awaits. The ones who serve are the ones who will sit at the places of honor (figuratively, of course). Our Lord reaches out in service. As his followers, we are called to join him in doing the same.

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Posted by on Sep 19, 2021

Wisdom, Justice, and The Just One

Wisdom, Justice, and The Just One

As people who live in a nation that is only a little over 200 years old, we Americans easily forget how long some traditions and histories of peoples actually are. A case in point is the history of the Jewish people. Their story goes back over 4,000 years. Lots of things happen in 4,000 years, including growth and change in understandings of how things are and how they were meant to be from the beginning.

In the past few weeks, we have heard readings from the writings of prophets and holy ones during the invasion of the Assyrians and, many years later, during the exile in Babylonia. The basic theme has been the same: God will protect those who are faithful to the covenant, the Law. When that faithfulness fails, God no longer protects the nation and disaster follows. A remnant of faithful people remain and God protects them and restores them to their land and freedom.

This week, the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we jump much closer to the beginning of our Christian experience. The book of Wisdom was written in Alexandria, Egypt in Greek by an unknown Jewish author who was well-versed in the traditions and literature of his people. It dates to about fifty to one hundred years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. In the approximately 250 years before it was written, the Greeks conquered Israel and attempted to impose their own traditions and religion. It had been a time of great suffering and some heroic witness by faithful Jews. Independence was gained at last and Rome had not yet conquered Israel. At least part of the writings in this work are attributed to King Solomon, a ruler remembered for his great wisdom. Despite being written in Greek, it follows the patterns of Hebrew verse. It also includes a notion of life after death. This is a new idea for the time and not accepted by all the people.

A Call to Justice

The book begins with a call to Justice. Justice is not a question of punishment for misdeeds. In this context, Justice is a moral quality that is universal and refers to the way in which moral conduct relates to Wisdom. When behavior is good and honest, when people care for each other and those who are most vulnerable, then justice is present. Wisdom is also called discipline. All are called to live justly.

But a group of people reject the calls of justice. They basically express the idea stated by folks in another time and culture, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” Why spend our lives looking out for others? We should live happily while we have the chance – get everything we can right now!

The only fly in the ointment is the example of the Just One(s) who try to live by the Law. These folks are also called son of God (child of God), meaning one who is so faithful to God as to be “like God.” They persist in openly living lives of faith and reminding others of the necessity to do so. They were a real pain to “the wicked” who preferred to live for themselves.

It is at this point that today’s reading picks up. (Wis 2:12, 170-20) The wicked ones decide to put the Just One to the test. Accuse him falsely. Torture him. Make fun of him. Condemn him to death. Kill him in the most shameful, personally embarrassing way possible. Find out in this way whether the Just One is truly gentle and patient. Find out also whether God will step in to take care of him!

The early church looked to this reading from Wisdom following Jesus’ death, seeing it as a prophecy of who he would be and what would happen to him. They saw the resurrection as fulfillment of the promise that God would take care of the Just One.

Jesus was also familiar with this prophecy and its history. He tried to warn his disciples that things were not going to go well for him. The Romans always condemned anyone who was called “messiah” among the people. Anyone who threatened the status quo would be seen as an enemy of Rome. St. Mark (Mk 9:30-37) describes Jesus’ efforts on the journey through Galilee to prepare his disciples for what was coming, but they were afraid to ask too many questions. Only after the resurrection did they begin to understand what he had said.

The inclusion of Jesus’ statement that the “Son of Man” would rise on the third day would not have been understood. “Son of Man” was another title of the coming messiah. The third day figuratively referred to the day when God would come to the rescue and make everything OK again. It was not only a question of a time period between 48 and 72 hours after an event had occurred. It was a much greater promise.

Then there was also the question of what they were discussing as they walked along with him. This was quite embarrassing, because they were doing a very human thing – trying to figure out which one of them was the best among them. Jesus put that to rest quickly. He stated flat out that only the one who was a servant to all, with the same lowly status as a child, could or would be the greatest. So much for worldly power and prestige. The one who receives a child in Jesus’ name receives the One who sent him.

Living in Wisdom and Justice

Early followers of Jesus did not find it easy to live as humbly and lovingly as he did. St. James addressed this problem in his letter (Jas 3:16-4:3). He noted that jealously and ambition are fundamental issues that cause disorder among people. Instead of living with these qualities, he describes wisdom and righteousness from above, which lead to peace. Purity, peaceability, gentleness, mercy, bearing good fruit – these are qualities that lead to peace in the community and within individuals.

St. James similarly describes the basis for wars and other conflicts as due to reliance on one’s passions rather than on wisdom. Those who ask God’s help based on their passions and personal self-interest will not receive a positive answer to their prayer, because they are asking for the wrong thing. The key to answered prayer is to ask for the right thing for the right reason.

Not an easy path … but one that can bring great and very positive change to a world.

How do I live in harmony and wisdom? What qualities do I need to favor in myself, so I can be gentle, merciful, kind, and wise? Where does self-care come into the equation? When must I say “NO” to demands that interfere with my ability to be loving, kind, and considerate?

In these times of great division and challenge, our answers to these questions will without a doubt ripple out into our world. Pray with me for wisdom.

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Posted by on Aug 28, 2021

Living in the Presence of the Lord

Living in the Presence of the Lord

I grew up in a Scouting family, with four younger brothers. Each month a new copy of Boys Life magazine arrived and we eagerly opened it to a page called “Think and Grin.” This was a collection of jokes and cartoons. Some were very obvious in meaning, others required a bit of thinking to understand the joke. But we all read them and usually then read them to our mother. She enjoyed them too, and especially she enjoyed the fact that we all, individually, read the very same jokes to her!

As I consider the readings for this Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time, I am struck by the double meaning of a word. The first reading, from the book of Deuteronomy, begins, “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe…” (Dt 4:1-2,6-8)  The word in question is “hear.” For us, hearing refers to the physical act of perceiving the sound and understanding the meaning of the word. But for the people of Israel, it carried an additional meaning. That meaning was to “obey,” as in “take it to heart and live according to what is being said.” In essence, this set of instructions should be called “Hear and Do.”

The context for this reading is that the Law is being presented to the people. It is a codification of how people are to interact with their God and with each other. The rules and codes grew out of a particular cultural context – that of a Middle-Eastern pastoral people. It codified a more merciful response to misfortune or injury at the hand of others. Today we look at it and see it as rather brutal, but the notion of balancing the taking of an eye with the penalty of losing an eye was actually a great improvement over the prior way of killing an entire family or village if one individual maimed, insulted, or injured a member of another stronger group. Jewish law was heavily influenced by the Code of Hammurabi, a legal text from Babylonia written down around 1755-1758 B.C. which pioneered this more humane legal code.

The instructions from Deuteronomy include another important point. Nothing is to be added or taken away from the Law as it is being presented to the people. Following this Law will show the wisdom and intelligence of the Israelites, a people who are close to their God who, in turn, chooses to remain close to them.

As the years and centuries passed, many new situations arose and solutions were found that came to be treated as essential parts of the Law. The Law as it was known by the time of Jesus was far more complicated than it had been when first handed down in the Sinai desert, particularly in terms of purity regulations. What made a person “unclean” and therefore ritually impure and prohibited from participating in religious rituals? A large number of guidelines had been developed, including specific ways and times for washing hands, kettles, jugs, and beds that explained what was impure and what was necessary to restore purity.

When Jesus’ disciples were seen eating after visiting the marketplace without first washing their hands in the ritually required manner before eating, the Scribes and Pharisees objected. Scribes were those who studied the scriptures. Pharisees were another group that focused closely on observing all of the specific requirements of the Law. Jesus responded with some aggravation. (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) He quoted Isaiah the prophet who had noted that human requirements had been added to the commandments of God and God’s commandments were not being observed. “Their hearts are far from me…” Jesus declared, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person.” It is only what comes from the heart, the depths of the human being, that can defile a person.

St. James echoes Jesus’ point in his letter to Jewish Christians. All good things come from God and are pure gift. There is never any change in God’s relationship with humans from God’s side of the deal. We have been willed into being and are to be a sort of first fruits of creation. From the human side, the critical thing is to be doers, not just hearers of the word of God. “Hear and Do” again!

What are we to do? Care for orphans and widows. Just for them? Why these two groups? When these words were first written, it was because without a man’s protection, anyone could and did do whatever they wanted to do to women and children. They had no social status and were the most vulnerable members of any community.

Today we have social and legal protections for women and children. Orphans and widows are not necessarily the most vulnerable people today, though we certainly have a responsibility as a community to provide loving support for them. But who else needs our care now? Refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers, addicts, the unhoused, those with special needs. Many people still need a hand and a smile of welcome. How will we respond to them? How do I respond?

“Those who do justice will live in the presence of the Lord.” (Ps 15) It was so three thousand years ago and it is so today. It’s all about our relationship with the Lord and each other. Hear and Do!

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Posted by on Jul 24, 2021

Grains and Bread in Abundance

Grains and Bread in Abundance

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

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

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

Barley, not wheat?

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

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

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

A Miracle? A Sign?

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

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

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

See you at Mass,

Kathy

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Posted by on Jul 18, 2021

Shepherds – More than those who care for sheep

Shepherds – More than those who care for sheep

Popular imagination is based on the historical lived experience of a people. Religious imagery reflects that experience. So today, the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, shepherds (and by extension sheep) are showing up in many of the readings. The Hebrew people were descendants of Abram and Sara, a shepherd and his wife from Mesopotamia. They were pastoralists who traveled over a wide area of countryside, seeking the best pastures for their sheep and living from the work of their hands (and feet – with all that walking). God called Abram to a special relationship and promised to be his God through all generations.

When it came time for the Hebrew people to have kings, the second king was David, a shepherd boy chosen by God to be the successor of Saul. In the Hebrew Scriptures, shepherd is a term often applied to the kings of the land. Sometimes the kings were faithful to the Covenant and sometimes they were not. Either way, the prophets spoke of them as shepherds.

Jeremiah (23:1-6) could see that his people and their kingdom were going to fall when faced by the might of Babylon. But the reason for the coming disaster had nothing to do with military might or the skill of generals. Israel had prevailed against all odds in the past. The failure this time would be the result of the failure of the rulers to be true to the Covenant.

Jeremiah speaks of these rulers as shepherds who have misled and scattered the flock of the Lord. They are not caring for the people as they have been called to do. He cries out that the Lord will be faithful, despite the misdeeds of the rulers. He will gather those who are faithful from among the nations to which they have been exiled and appoint new, faithful shepherds to guide and protect his flock.

This prophesy concludes with the messianic promise of a new king from David’s line who will shepherd the people wisely and be known as “The Lord of Justice.”

The Twenty-third Psalm is rightly loved for its promise of the loving care of the Lord who acts as a shepherd for his flock. Not only does the shepherd guide and protect the flock, the shepherd honors those for whom he cares, even in the face of those who would hurt them. Goodness and kindness characterize the care of the shepherd. The sheep, all of us in his care, will dwell in the Lord’s house for years to come.

With the coming of Jesus and the welcoming of Gentiles into the flock of the Lord as well, the divisions between peoples of the world are broken down. (Eph 2:13-18) No longer is anyone to be excluded from the flock of the Lord of Justice. The divisions among the peoples of the world were destroyed by the cross. Through Jesus, we all have access to the Father in one Spirit. The shepherd now has called the sheep from around the world and united us into one flock.

The Gospel this week (Mk 6:30-34) continues last week’s story. Remember that Jesus sent out his followers to heal the sick and call people to repentance, to turn their lives back to God. This week they have returned. Mark calls them apostles now, those who have been sent. Jesus takes time to talk with them about their experience and invites them to take some time to rest, in a deserted place, away from regular life and the crowds of people who kept coming to hear and see him. However, they can’t get away on foot, so they get on the boat and head out onto the Sea of Galilee. Even that doesn’t work. The people see where they are going and walk there themselves, around the shore of the lake. When Jesus and his friends arrive, the crowds are already there.

Did Jesus get angry, get back on the boat and sail away? No. St. Mark tells us, “His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.”  He sat down and began to teach them. The shepherd had arrived. The Lord of Justice has come to his people.

Today we are challenged to be good shepherds to those sent to our care. It may be children, spouses, fellow workers, the old or the young, or people we meet on the street. How do we share the love of the Lord of Justice, the shepherd who truly cares for and loves his flock? And then, how do we rest in the green pastures to which that same Lord leads us, so we can be refreshed? Both outreach and times to rest and be renewed are essential.  Summer is a good time for both.

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Posted by on Jul 10, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by on Jun 15, 2021

A Mustard Seed Story

A Mustard Seed Story

Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed in the gospel of Mark always brings a smile to my face.

When I was a girl, my mother always made dill pickles. She used the same recipe her mother, grandmother, sisters, and brothers used. But each family’s pickles tasted a bit different.

No one knew why that should be until one of my aunts, who was a home economics teacher, decided to experiment with the ingredients. She made pickles one day using the same batch of cucumbers and dill from the garden, and the same brine. Then she put identical amounts of all but one ingredient into the jars. Each jar had one ingredient in a larger amount than the other jars did. Several months later, when the cucumbers had matured into dill pickles, she tasted them. The key to the spiciness of her pickles in comparison with those of all the rest of the family turned out to be the amount of mustard seed she put in the jars. She used a heaping measure of the seed. Others used a level one.

The mustard seed we all use(d) for pickles is a relatively large seed. It’s far from being “the smallest of all the seeds on the earth” as is the seed described by Jesus in St. Mark’s gospel. However, these mustard seeds were the only ones I had ever seen.

When I began teaching fifth and sixth grade religious education classes, I included this parable among the ones I shared with the children. I brought some of the seeds with me to class and asked them to glue them into their books on the page on which they had written a bit of the parable and drawn a picture of a tree with birds in it. I always cautioned them not to eat any of the seeds. Invariably, one of the boys would taste one anyway. He would then need to race from the room to get a drink of water! They asked why I had given them something so spicy and I would remind them that I had told them not to taste them.

Still, I wondered about the description of these seeds as being the smallest on earth. I knew that lettuce seeds and snapdragon flower seeds were much smaller.

Then I met Paul. Paul was from India and came to live with us for a while. He introduced me to South Asian foods, including curries, chapattis, and other delights. One of the ingredients he used was mustard seed. This was a tiny brown seed, not much bigger than the period at the end of a sentence. It was not the big yellowish one we used for pickles. It gave a lovely richly spicy flavor to the food, though it was subtle when used appropriately in the recipes.

When I met this variety of mustard, I began to understand the parable of the mustard seed. A tiny little seed could indeed make a big difference in the flavor of a food. It could grow into a much larger plant as well. Birds and other animals could thrive in its shelter.

Was the mustard seed of which Jesus spoke really the same as these mustard seeds used in cooking? Maybe not. There is a plant known as a mustard tree that grows in the Middle East. It has yellow flowers and tiny seeds. It’s more of a shrub than a tree, but it can grow to be up to 20 feet tall

Whether or not the seeds we identify as mustard seeds for cooking are the same ones Jesus mentioned is really not the important thing. What matters is that very small things can grow into much larger ones and have an effect far greater than their size.

The kingdom of God is truly like the mustard seed. It appears in very small and unobtrusive ways. No one would think twice about it or about the prospect that it could be important in any way. Yet as the poor receive food, clothing, shelter, opportunities, respect, health care, and other necessities of life, as justice (the right order of things) is restored, the kingdom begins to blossom and grow. God works with tiny things to bring about great wonders. A shoot from a tree can grow into a massive new tree high upon a mountain. A tiny seed can grow to be a beautiful flower or a tall tree sheltering birds and other creatures. And the harvest of justice marks the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

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