CHRIST THE KING (Sunday, November 25, 2018)

Today’s feast, Christ the King, dates back only to 1925. Pope Pius XI established it. The feast of Christ the King’s origin is regarded as an attempt to compensate with a royal title after an earlier claim of papal infallibility following the loss of face stemming from losing the papal states in Italy some years earlier.

As Americans, we may have difficulty with the word “king.” We became a nation because we revolted against a king and an empire.

Yet, some of our religious practices are courtly, we bow our heads in church. Some genuflect - an ancient sign of respect for royalty. The newer way of receiving our Lord in the hand (which is not newer but older) recalls the words of Cyril of Jerusalem to newly baptized: “Make your left hand a throne for the right, for it is about to receive a king.” [Mystagogia lecture v, 21]

On this last Sunday of Ordinary Time, the lectionary departs from the final year Gospel of mark to hear John’s account of Jesus before Pilate. It is Jesus’ only direct encounter with political power.

It is so ironic that Jesus was arrested on the charge of being a political insurrectionist - which is what some Jews wanted him to be. He rejected that title at every turn, and now he is accused of being just that. Later, Pilate will place the inscription atop the cross: “Jesus the Nazorean, king of the Jews.” Still later, Pilate refused to change it or remove it.

The accusers of Jesus are outside the court; Jesus is inside. Pilate physically goes back and forth - appropriate for the way he vacillates. Jesus’ speaking with the Jews has become futile. Now, he speaks only with Pilate, who might possibly listen.

Pilate, the interrogator asks four questions, all aimed at establishing the true identity of Jesus. Pilate’s issue is contained in the first question to Jesus, “are you the king of the Jews?” John is using his favorite device, “misunderstanding”, to expose the two different levels of the exchange. Pilate wants to know what political rights Jesus is claiming for himself. Jesus, on the other hand, is speaking of the spiritual reality, which has absolutely nothing to do with Pilate’s political power.

If anything, Jesus’ kingship redefines the very nature of what it means to be a leader. Jesus’ authority comes from God, and his leadership is exercised through self-giving service - motivated by love. He makes some powerful enemies along the way. His ultimate act will be to die on the cross for his unwavering dedication to his message.

The contrast between these two “powers” increases as a wary Pilate, seeking to make Jesus deny or affirm he is king of the Jews, fails to grasp the real meaning of “my kingdom does not belong to this world.” Pilate the politician sees only the earthly, the political. Jesus tries to lead Pilate to see at another level, where not politics, but the truth of god in Jesus resides. Pilate has the power of life and death; Jesus has the real authority. The difference between power and authority is made clear in G. K. Chesterton’s humorous remark: “If a rhinoceros were to enter this room there would be no denying he had power, but I would rise and assure him he had no authority.”

When one listens to Jesus’ words, one thereby allows Jesus to rule our hearts. If we do not like the word “king,” we may substitute the One’ in our hearts. More than anything, more than any relationship: mother, father, and spouse, even children - our prime relationship must first be with God.

That is the truth that Jesus invited Pilate to acknowledge. It was Pilate’s great opportunity to discover truth. Harvard University had as its original motto: “Veritas Christo et ecclesiae” [Truth - for Christ and church.] In the dark of some night, Harvard’s motto was shortened to simply “Veritas”, that is, “truth.”

Christ’s rule in our heart is the truth that the Church reminds us to recognize on this feast: the special prayers, the special preface where we proclaim Jesus as king of truth and life, king of holiness and goodness, king of justice, love and peace.

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (November 18, 2018)

A curious thing about different faith expressions’ reading the bible is that different denominations strongly adhere to different themes. Today’s readings present a good example.

Some evangelicals plug deeply into “end of the world” theology - properly called “apocalyptic” – the name given this “end time” writing form. These are the people who are often portrayed in cartoons carrying signs: repent: the end is near. They attempt to compute precisely when the world will end -- and then revise their predictions when their predicted time passes, and we are all still here. The most famous was in 1999 waiting for - to use an old term, Y2K; ‘Millennium frenzy” was rampant. Because of computer failure, some expected planes falling from the sky at the stroke of midnight.

Others believe - or act as if they believe - that either the world will never end, at least not in their lifetime - or they act as if they are never going to die. Some seem to think that there are no eventual consequences for what they do, or fail to do.

Achieving a sense of balance is as necessary in bible reading as it is in tightrope walking. What is the balanced view? Mark tells us in this “little apocalypse,” that even Jesus did not know when the end of the world would happen. We cannot let the distortion of some shape our spiritual views. Date setting is an exercise in futility.

Throughout his short Gospel, Mark portrays Jesus as a man of action, not words. There are few teachings. Today’s Gospel is Jesus’ only extended talk presented in Mark’s Gospel.

Today’s readings are a reminder of something that is a certain reality, our personal death and judgment. The time of our demise is unknown and often unexpected. St. Francis de sales wisely said that our death usually comes earlier than we expect.

We need to realize and acknowledge our own mortality! This is not being maudlin, it is facing reality. While the end of the world may or not take place in our lifetime, our personal end surely will. Pope John XXIII said it so well: “ I keep my bags packed.” That implies: first, we know we will be going on a trip. Second, we do not know our departure time. The simple and clear spiritual implication is that we need to express our spiritual readiness by living our Catholic-Christian life all the time. Jesus’ words are meant to cause us to be watchful in an ongoing way.

Our Father loves us with an everlasting love; today’s readings invite us to plug our “rechargeable power pack” of spirit into our source, Jesus’ transforming love. An image of his transforming love is captured in the life of the caterpillar. The caterpillar inexorably spins its cocoon and later emerges as a butterfly. If we are to become the changed persons that the lord calls us to become, we must allow ourselves to be transformed. Eucharist is his greatest gift of transportation to him - at least once a week. We need to let his presence transform our presence. That is grace.

Eucharist is transforming only if we cooperate. St. Francis de Sales suggested that when the celebration of mass is ended, we should heed the “sending forth” by the priest or deacon and carry his presence in Eucharist within us out of church as if carrying a vessel filled with liquid, with one eye on who we are carrying and the other eye on where we are going. Francis thus provides an image of being conscious of our living Jesus when mass ends. We carry his Eucharistic presence with us as we move into our personal worlds.

In living this mystery, we have no fear of his second coming or our personal encounter when we go to him --- whenever that will be.

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (November 11, 2018)

Today’s scripture readings feature two widows. Both are non-Christian. Both were insignificant because they have three strikes against them: they are women; they are poor; they have no man to protect them. Both get help from above. Both became very significant. Both have something to say to us.

There is first the widow who shows hospitality to a stranger who is actually the Jewish prophet, Elijah. She receives an unexpected reward during a famine: her food jar and jug remain with food enough for all three for the next year.

In the gospel, Jesus is sitting opposite beautiful gate in the temple courtyard, perhaps resting after his recent encounter in the court of the gentiles.

Jesus watches the people giving to the treasury of the temple. This support of the priests and temple ministries was a required and meaningful participation in the religious life of Israel.

The wealthy gave large sums of money. They were richly blessed. Jesus was pleased to see them do so. Then, a Jewish widow walks up to one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped collection containers in the court of women. She puts in two leptons, the smallest of all coins. Significant! She does not keep one for herself; she threw in both.

When she threw in her coins, they must have seemed like a small gift to anyone who was watching. But, she gave everything - even her security. She had somewhere learned that the experience of the goodness and the generosity of God make our goodness and generosity possible. She trusts her tradition and offers all - placing herself in God’s mercy.

Jesus, seeing her, must have been brought to his feet with excitement. He praises her -- and brings me to shame every time I hear this story

God’s criterion for generosity differs from the world’s, as we learn in today’s readings. God wants more than our money. God wants our hearts. Our giving is motivitated by gratitude to God for what we have; recognition of the fact that all things really belong to God, and realization that giving is the living out of love.

God is not primarily interested in the amount we give to support his work. God is interested in the priority of our giving. Do we give to god the first fruits of our abundance, or do we give god only what is left after we have taken good care of ourselves? Giving first to him recognizes that we also trust him to provide for our needs.

God has good ears. He does not hear the sound of paper in the giving as loudly as he hears the paper that still rustles in our wallets.

Here are the stories of two widows - both willing to give everything and live in hope for what may come. This is possible only for folks who deeply appreciate god’s goodness and love for us.

Probably, the generous widows in today’s readings began with small acts of generosity. The act of generosity is the seed that produces the fruit, the virtue of generosity. Our Lord applauds generosity and their stories are retold two thousand years later.

The widow foreshadows Jesus’ self-giving at a most timely moment. She offered him encouragement as he approached the offering of his own life on the cross within that very week.

Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary (November 4, 2018)

“Which is the first of all of the commandments?”

When we get right down to it, what is the most important dimension of our faith? Upon what foundation does the edifice of Christianity rest?

Jesus’ answer is unambiguous: love. This love has three facets.

Love of God. Francis de Sales tells us that the reason that we love God is because of who God is: our dignity, and our destiny. “We love God because God is the most supreme and most infinite goodness.”

Love of neighbor. Francis de Sales tells us: “Love of God not only commands love of neighbor, but it even produces and pours love of neighbor into our hearts. Just as we are in God’s image, so the sacred love we have for one another is the true image of our heavenly love for God.”

Love of self. This is the aspect that perhaps we are most tempted to overlook: after all, “self-love” sounds suspiciously like being self-centered. Why should we love ourselves? Simply and profoundly because “we are God’s image and likeness,” says Francis de Sales. When we are at our best all of us are the “most holy and living images of the divine.”

Why is authentic love of self so critical to our love of God and neighbor? Simply, if we fail to love ourselves, how can we possibly give praise and thanks to God for creating us? If we fail to love ourselves, how can we possible love our neighbor who is not only made in God’s image, but who is fundamentally made in the image and likeness of us since we all come from the same source – God himself.

The fullness of Christian perfection – the fullness of living Christ’s life – can be likened to a three-legged table. To the extent that any one of the three legs is weak, the whole table is seriously at risk. Such a table cannot hope to support any significant weight. So, too, if any one of the three loves of our lives – God, self and others – is deficient, all three will suffer, and we cannot hope to carry the weight of God’s command for us to build up something of God’s Kingdom here on earth.

To be sure, love is the simple answer to what is most important in our lives. In our lived experience, however, this love is never quite so simple as we might like to believe.

How is your love of God? How is your love of neighbor? How is your love of self?


All Saints (November 1, 2018)

Every 10 years a census is taken in the USA. In 1990, there were found to be 248.7 million . . . Then, the complaints came in that whole areas were not counted, so they estimated that about 5 to 10 mil were missed. We do not know, for sure.

In today’s reading, we hear a very exact number by the author of the quaint, chaotic, and creative work: The Book of Revelation. It tells us that 144 thousand will be the final halo count in heaven.

Where did that come from? The number, like so many others in the bible, is symbolic: 12 is an important number: 4 directions [news] x 3 regions of the world: heaven, earth, under the earth = 12. 12 x 12, a dozen dozen x 1000 =144k

You can almost see the sign at the gates: Heavenly Jerusalem - population 144 thousand. It was the biggest number imaginable to the ancients -- they lived before trillion dollar national debts became fashionable.

Saints are not rarities - anything but. There are more saints than green flies on the beach during a land breeze. That should be a source of encouragement to us.

Too often we imagine saints as they are portrayed in art: on pedestals, somehow beyond us, out of reach -- and out of touch. It can leave us with a sense of guilt because we are unable to be like them. We fear our personal identity may be lost if we were “holy.” This thinking undermines the theology of the human person; we are called - distinct and unique, by name.

This feast reminds us that each of us is destined to be a saint. Sanctity is not reserved for holy Joes and holy judies who pray a lot, suffer a lot, and rarely have any fun.

The saints were just like us: composites of mind, body, and spirit. They experienced the same ups and downs as we - sinners like us. They discovered the secret of sanctity -- revealed in the first reading: “Salvation is from our God.” We become saints not because we make up our minds to become a saint; only God can and does make us holy.

We are “God’s children” as the second reading tells us: often prodigal, always pardonable. Salvation is from our God. We repeatedly invite our lord and open our minds, bodies, and hearts to his inspiration. Being open is our work.

If the saints could talk, they might make this statement: “Don’t look at us as models, simply to be imitated, you would lose sight of who you are. Imitation does not lend itself to deep spirituality. The number in heaven, the census, increases daily. So, our wish and our prayer for this all saints day is expressed in the familiar song: “I want to be in that number when the saints come marching in.”

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 28, 2018)

Today, we hear mark’s account of Jesus’ last healing miracle before he goes to his suffering and death in Jerusalem. It took place in suburban Jericho, a city located in the Jordan River valley near the lowest point on planet earth, almost 800 feet below sea level. Jericho is only fifteen miles from Jerusalem, which is located in the Judean high country. That is why the Gospel always speaks of “going up to Jerusalem” --- from any direction.

As Jesus begins his long, uphill trek to Jerusalem, a blind beggar is sitting by the roadside. The beggar is a man of desperate desire. His name is Bartimaeus. Why are we told his name? We are not told the names of the man with the unclean spirit, the paralytic lowered thru the roof, or even peter’s mother-in-law.

Bartimaeus knew what he wanted. He calls out. “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” “Many” try to hush him. “Gatekeepers around some people existed in Jesus’ day as well as our own. Jesus calls for him and cures him. Jesus tells him: “Go your way.” Why is Bartimaeus the only name we have of a person Jesus healed in this Gospel? Let us see.

Well, he calls Jesus by his given name, Jesus. Unique. He calls Jesus “son of David” - a messianic title, Jesus interprets this heartfelt, personal greeting as faith and tells him, “Your faith has saved you.”

Mark tells us that Bartimaeus “followed [Jesus] on his way, mark’s way of saying he became Jesus’ disciple. Another first: Bartimaeus is the only example in all the gospels of a cured person becoming a disciple. The others went home in awe to begin a new life of health with their loved ones. We do not blame them for going back. But, the decision to go forward, toward someone completely new and virtually unknown is Bartimaeus’ daring choice.

A simple story, yet it is singular in many ways. Unlike last week’s gospel where James and john wanted glory alongside Jesus, Bartimaeus wants mercy and calls Jesus “master,” a word that disciples use to address their teacher and follow him.

Jesus did not come primarily to heal the physically blind, but to facilitate spiritual insight. Jesus often used physical blindness as a metaphor for spiritual blindness as when he called the Pharisees, “blind guides.”

As a curious aside, in an interview, Ray Charles said that if God offered him his sight back, he wouldn’t take it. Why? Because, he said, “sometimes beautiful people are not packaged very beautifully. But you don’t know this when you are blind. When one of my children crawls onto my lap if I could see, I would probably see dirt on his clothes or shoes. And I would probably say, “Go clean your clothes before you crawl onto my lap, but I don’t see my child as cleaned up or not cleaned up. I only feel my child as ninety pounds of love.” Ray Charles may have physical blindness, but here enjoys spiritual, 20/20 insight.

The blind can’t form first impressions by eyeballing. The physically blind are not deceived by what sighted people think they see. Perhaps we need to ask, “ Who is really blind, after all? Sometimes we rely so much on physical sight that we tend to see only the surface of things. Reality can be so different from appearance.

Each of us is blind in some respect. We may not see from the heart into the heart. Francis de sales said so well: “ Lips speak only to ears; hearts speak to hearts.” Let us look into our hearts, try to be open and ask Jesus to heal our blindness for the hearts of others.

Bartimaeus was probably still present when the story was told in the early church. How else would they remember his name by the time this gospel was written? Bartimaeus is a Christian hero. We can wonder why there are not statues of him in churches that have statues?

Those 15 miles, uphill, must have been easy for Bartimaeus after his more significant, inward journey. Let’s revel in his journey within and join him in renewed faith, gratitude, and loyalty to our sight-giving Jesus.

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 21, 2018)

A young person in church heard that authorities should be servants and thought: “my parents really need to hear this!” The parents heard it and thought: “my boss really needs to hear this! The boss heard it and thought: “Our CEO really needs to hear this!” The CEO heard it and thought, “Our pastor really needs to hear this!” The pastor heard it and thought, “The bishop really needs to hear this!” How deaf we all can be!

James and john came from some money; they were the sons of Zebedee, who was wealthy enough to hire employees for his fishing business. The brothers enjoyed other prestige: they, with peter, formed the inner circle of the apostles who were with Jesus at very special times:

  • the three whom Jesus took with him when he raised the daughter of Jairus from death;

  • the three privileged to experience the transfiguration of Jesus;

  • the three who will be present in the garden of Gethsemane.

Remember earlier, when Jesus [and they] had been rejected by a Samaritan town? They wanted to call down fire and brimstone to destroy the town? Jesus must have been shaking his head in stunned disbelief. James and John got the only nickname among the apostles: “Boanerges” - “the sons of thunder.” A very human moment with Jesus and the twelve. We heard the reaction of the others in today’s Gospel.

Today, we hear the pair ask that if Jesus is to get the gold medal, that they stand on the other two pedestals to get the silver and bronze; that they sit at his right and left hand in glory. Jesus had just foretold, for the third time, his passion and taking up the cross. They talked about climbing up on two pedestals.

Why? Perhaps James and John recalled their presence at Jesus’ glorious transfiguration with Moses and Elijah one on each side of him. They could not conceive of Jesus’ future entrance to glory with a thief one on each side. Both James and john would later become revered saints; there is hope for us all.

Jesus takes this opportunity to teach a most revolutionary lesson: the place of authority/ power in the kingdom of God. He taught that if one wished to be master, he must serve the rest, not lord it over the rest. The greatest abuse of power is to use power for one’s personal advantage. Jesus would wash their feet at the last supper.

Positions of power are troublesome for disciples like you and me. We have bad examples in politics: “public servant” has often come to mean one who makes a campaign promise of being a servant before the election and acts as a master after the election.

Power can - and often does - turn our heads. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”, Lord Acton correctly said. Do you know that he originated the saying when speaking about the papacy? With power comes independence. With independence often comes pride. With pride often comes arrogance - shown in being deaf to hearing both the voice of Jesus and the cry of the poor.

Perhaps, another hurdle is really appreciating the distinction between being useful and being used? We need to know and live the difference, so we become servants to others, not “enablers.”

In being a Christian servant, one avoids coercive power [violence]. We need to make a u-turn on the learning curve of “worldly wisdom.” The Christian, alternative power to coercive is persuasive power.

Persuasive is the power Jesus used. Persuasive power is the power of a mother Teresa of Calcutta, the power of St. Francis de sales who authored the saying, “You can catch more flies with a teaspoon of honey than with a barrel of vinegar.” You can supply your names of people who have influenced you by their persuasive power. It is the power of good example, shining example, the “gentle persuasion” of the Quakers.

We have heard it said that we cannot change others; the only one we can change is ourselves. We are changed by shining example, the persuasive power of others, especially Jesus. That is what we can offer to others.

Everyone knows what it means to be a servant. What we may forget is that it represents our highest calling and the meaning of any authority we may have. Without occasional reminders, we so easily forget and act like young Jimmy and Johnny.

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 14, 2018)

The rich man asks Jesus: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus first needs to address the word “good” to set his theme. He says that god alone is good. Jesus then presents several commandments not as things not to do or to do, but to help form the attitude to recognize God’s goodness, a necessity to receive our God. The man thinks of these as “things,” a to-do list.

Keeping the commandments, being physically present at Mass, putting something in the collection, doing the things of religion are indicators of the right attitude. They do not make us truly spiritual persons, persons with our hearts in the right place.

Hearing that, Jesus told him he lacked only one thing: a spirit that comes from insecurity by not accumulating, not possessing. “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor . . . You will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

In the Hebrew scripture, wealth is generally understood as a blessing of god. It is no wonder that the disciples are confused. The metaphor of the camel, the largest animal in Israel, passing through the eye of a needle, the smallest hole, only adds to their amazement. They are left to wrestle with the reality that what appears as blessing can become hindrance.

Jesus was using a deliberate exaggeration, an hyperbole, to tell in another form what he had taught back in chapter eight of this Gospel with his one liner question: what will it profit a person to gain the whole world and forfeit their eternal lives?

The camel and the eye of the needle is a catchy phrase. This is not a condemnation of the rich . . . Jesus had good friends that had money; after all, he allowed himself to be anointed with expensive oil - which Judas criticized until Jesus set him straight. A rich man buried him in the tomb. Mark tells us he loved this rich man.

“Catch” is the operative word here. The image of the camel and needle’s eye catch our attention because of its impossibility. Jesus hopes that it will then catch our curiosity, our interest - like a lure that the man who spoke of “fishers of men” would use -- to catch our hearts, to catch us.

Did Jesus prefer the poor to the rich? Did the poor prefer him? Was it the poor who were most likely to believe? The answer to all three questions is “yes”: to initiate what has come to be called Jesus’ “preferential option for the poor,” to have the poor preferring him, and to experience the poor as being better disposed to believe in him was Jesus’ positive experience. Jesus sees that possessions and the status and power that come with them tend to keep people away from God.

With wealth, it is not the money itself that is wrong, but the sense of power and mastery, the sense of independence and self-reliance, the “perks” of wealth that we want to have are wrong. I think that this may be the most difficult area of Christian behavior. A profound question for us is: how much is enough?

I cannot and would never suggest an answer to “how much is enough?” I have great difficulty advising myself about the question. We need to pray thoughtfully as we balance our prudent security and the generosity to which we are called.

Mental health pioneer Karl Menninger said, “Money-giving [not just giving, but money-giving] is a good criterion of a person’s mental health. [He found that] generous people are rarely mentally ill people.” This is true whether you are rich with barns-too-small or a widow with two pennies. Jesus knew, as did Menninger, that giving money is the way of being liberated from our bondage to money. A person so liberated can be a “cheerful” giver. Something to ponder.

Jesus began with emphasizing the goodness of his father. Jesus makes as his main point that goodness. The rich man wants eternal life. Eternal life is a gift flowing freely from the goodness of god. When you and I focus on god’s goodness, we realize that goodness in giving flows from God and it inspires us to participate in the giving, as did Jesus. We live Jesus. Eternal life begins here.

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 7, 2018)

Today we hear Jesus’ views on marriage and divorce. The Pharisees try to trap him on the topic of divorce. Jesus asked what Moses commanded ? The Pharisees answered with what Moses permitted. Then, Jesus quoted the book of genesis and his father’s plan for the loving unity of a man and woman in what we call “matrimony.”

His father was infinitely before the Law of Moses. God’s plan in the book of genesis is for a man and woman to join in a permanent union and live as one; it is a beautiful plan. Jews found that a permanent union is not possible in all cases, but their solution was sexist and unjust. The book of Deuteronomy, presumed to be written by Moses, proclaimed that a wife could be dismissed for “something indecent.” “Something indecent” was defined by orthodox rabbis like Rabbi Hammai to be adultery. Reformed rabbis like Rabbi Hillel taught that a bad meal was sufficient grounds for “something indecent,” and divorce was permitted.

The Catholic Church teaches from genesis the beauty of matrimony and its permanent nature. The church also wisely realized that many folks are too immature at the time of their vow to make a commitment, or go to the altar with other serious defect. It teaches that all marriages are not matrimonies; that is, not all are the unions god planned. The church recognizes that with these serious flaws at the moment of the vows, there was not a matrimony, and uses the word, “annulment,” a decree indicating no matrimony occurred. The ability to marry is still possible. Of course, it was a civilly legal marriage and any children are legitimate; a civil divorce must precede the annulment process.

In Jesus’ day, only men and no women were permitted to ask for divorce in the unjust laws that viewed women as the property of men. Jesus upheld the creator’s intention to the Pharisees that “two should become one.” To his disciples he afterwards taught the sanctity of marriage and the evil of adultery for either partner. So, he also spoke against the victimization of women.

As we saw in the gospel of two Sundays ago, Jesus used children to illustrate those with low status in ancient culture. Today, he repeats the lesson, but adds that the ancient culture’s low status of both children and women is reversed in his “other world” view.

While we are on the topic of matrimony, one of the unfortunate results of the clerical culture within the church is the lack of married couples listed among the saints. Mother or father founders of religious groups, bishops and popes are leading candidates for sainthood.

Pope John Paul II recognized this and asked for something to be done. The only corrective to this situation, of which I am aware, is more humorous than corrective. The resulting correction of the Vatican’s search was to find a couple as candidates who had several children and who were, except for one, priests and religious sisters. The couples’ holiness, it seems, was that they were a couple who had celibate, God-serving children.

Sometimes, two good people are not good for each other and the union is death dealing, not life-giving. God wants life-giving unions.

May I say that my experience is much different? I have found many of you who work for the coming of God’s kingdom as married couples in a beautiful and holy way. You, like Jesus in his ministry, do not have any guaranteed results for your efforts. All that both Jesus and you hoped for, striven for, prayed to the father for, has not worked out as our Lord and you would have liked. Many of your labors bore obvious, good fruit. Apparent, not-best results do not take away from your personhood; we give our God our desire; we give God our efforts.

I firmly believe that there are many saints among you. I know, too, that you would vehemently deny this. Which only makes me smile. If you were to say: “You are absolutely right; how could anyone deny we are saints . . . At least I am?” you would have to step off the “saint wagon.” Real saints do not see themselves as saints; the name for that is humility.

A final note: curiously, loneliness is the first thing in all creation that Jesus called “not good.” Not so curiously, the church initiated celibacy and called it “God’s will.”

For that? God be blessed!

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 30, 2018)

Today, the connection between the first reading and the Gospel jumps out at us. In the first reading, before the Jews entered the Promised Land, God directs Moses to choose seventy elders as helpers and bring them to the tent where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Two, Eldad and Medad, had been chosen, but were absent for the tent blessing, yet they still received the gift of prophecy and Moses approved them. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, expresses the same sentiment, as Jesus’ disciples will later: resentment.

Coincidently, that is the reason why the elders were sometimes numbered as seventy, sometimes as seventy-two and also why the same number of Jesus’ disciples is disputed.

In Jesus’ day, our Gospel passage begins with the issue of how authority is mediated in the Christian community. His disciples are resentful because another, not in the company of Jesus, also has the gift of healing. They are upset because that exorcist does not belong, is an outsider, a threat to their turf, their self-importance. Their issue shows their faulty attitude and sense of competitiveness. It raises the question: why are the disciples not delighted that more were cured, and that the exorcist exorcised in Jesus’ name; that is, through Jesus’ power? It was only shortly before that the disciples themselves were unable to cast out an evil spirit; now they are jealous of an “outsider” who can.

That raises a deeper question. We recognize the basic fight to survive in each of us. When drowning or other dire situation faces us, we fight for our lives – and rightly so. Recognizing the needs of others to physically survive triggers the gut-compassion that is the stuff of heroes. On the other hand, we also recognize a dangerous, competitive spirit that is also a knee-jerk reaction. Sadly, we are so defensive of our egos.

Our effort to attain the consciousness of Jesus impacts the competitive spirit that defends egos:

  • A basic value in Christianity is cooperation, not competition. Growth in love is associated with cooperation, not with competition. We need to recognize this.
  • Our loving relationship with God is the paramount value and trumps all other values; we need to live this reality.
  • We are called to improve ourselves in the physical, emotional, and intellectual realms. Competition enhances all three, but winning is not everything. Sportsmanship – a subset of love of neighbor – tempers competitive athletics. That is sanity.
Today, we hear Jesus scold the disciples for competitiveness and exclusiveness. The disciples see themselves as superior, an in-group. They seem to feel somehow cheated because an outsider can heal in Jesus’ name. Somehow we tend to be exclusive when Jesus calls us to be like himself, inclusive. We remember the words of John’s Gospel [17]. Jesus prayer for unity: “I pray father that all may be one. As you are in me and I in you …”

We all recognize and accept that no one of us is perfect. That is an understatement. We also need to accept the fact that each of us is innately unique and, yes, great. But not perfect. That realization is a wonderful, life-giving truth.

We all have graces and gifts from God. These are not to be hoarded and reveled in as personal possessions, but shared. When we appreciate that this is also true of everyone else, we have neither need nor desire to exclude anyone or to feel superior. It is a perversity within our hearts to be exclusive, to feel somehow superior. Smugness is not virtuous.

Our search, our quest is to become increasingly conscious of what gifts we have been given, what we will do with them, and who we are becoming. On the flip side, unhealthy and foolish envy at what we lack is both counter-productive and unchristian.

The place of competition is to help, not hurt us. Cooperation is an end; competition, only a means. Appreciation of a diminished role of competition is certainly a hard-won victory in my personal evolution. It is surely not what the world taught us years ago.

Let us not forget the principle Jesus lays down for us in today’s Gospel: “He who is not against you is for you.” Our Gospel diminishes the number of those “against” us.

The cooperative life is good!

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 23, 2018)

The Book of Wisdom is the last book written in the Old Testament. We just heard from its opening section promoting the wisdom of an other-world view over a this-world view. God sent prophets to try to break through the very common, this-world mindset.

Jesus-as-prophet tries for the second of three attempts in two successive chapters in mark’s gospel to tell his disciples that he is the Messiah, who will suffer, die and rise from death. Mark uses a simple process: prediction, misunderstanding, corrective teaching. I wonder if John copied this idea from mark because the same pattern is frequently present in his “Johannine misunderstanding.” John wrote several decades after Mark. We heard examples of this last month in his bread of life discourse.

Today, Jesus’ disciples changed the subject of Jesus-as-Messiah/Son of Man to their agenda: who is the greatest? Jesus asked what they were discussing, but they did not tell him. Jesus spoke about greatness and said: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” He set a child in front of him. He embraced the child and said: “whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not [only] me, but the one who sent me.”

The reason for choosing the child was not because of a child’s innocence and openness. The present context is “greatness.” A child in that culture and, sadly, for many in our culture is the person least valued, yet, Jesus says that the one who becomes like the child will be the greatest. A child – before it learns the word “mine” – does not seek to possess things, does not seek power, does not lord it over others. That is the point that Jesus makes. Neither is he saying that children were unloved or uncared for in Jewish culture. He tries to convince them that status in his other-world view is the reverse of what the wisdom of this-world is. Children were at the bottom on the status scale.

If the task of the prophet is to both afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, Jesus is doing both in this scene. He is trying to teach them that the comfortable notion that status, possessions and power make one “number one, first” is wrong; the opposite is correct. The one who becomes poor in spirit and powerless is the one who will be first in the kingdom of God. He reiterates the value of discipleship in rejecting status and accepting servant tasks. Some disciples want none of this. He is also trying to provide comfort for their imminent affliction when they will see him suffer terribly and die.

For those who have self-centeredness as a form of consciousness, the prophet’s words are manipulated to fit their self-centeredness. Their manipulation may be playing the acting-role of a servant in order to achieve recognition; that is, they become a phony-last to become a phony-first with a false humility. Or, they make the prophets the enemy that must be silenced. They will find some “reason,” and never see their self-centeredness.

The real great are those who try to assume the consciousness of Jesus. They try to Live Jesus.

Now, fasten your seatbelt. A spiritual writer like John Shea and a world leader like Dag Hammarskjöld recognize “least” at a deeper level. Carl Rogers, a therapist, without mention of god, achieved wonderful, clinical results with the following.

These accept, welcome and embrace persons considered “least” at their deeper, moral-social level. They accept a person in being a human person – as Jesus did. At your and my “least,” we are: without title, without status, without wealth, without possessions, without color, without race, without political stance, without sexual orientation. At this level, we can see a person with the eyes of Jesus and his father without clutter and without any make-up and accept, welcome and serve every person with god-consciousness. Clearly an other-world view. Perhaps this brings new meaning to the expression: “Less is better.”

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 16, 2018)

Jesus asks a disarming question: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples answer with comments they have heard about Jesus. Then Jesus asks his real question, the penetrating question that will live forever. Who do you say that I am? Peter steps up and answers with the title that is correct: “You are the Christ,” “Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word, “messiah,” “the anointed one.” Messiah has more than one meaning. Many, probably most, thought it indicated the one who would free Israel from roman rule, be triumphant in a this-world understanding of messiah.

Jesus tried to correct their understanding with an otherworld understanding as the “son of man.” He, the suffering servant, said he would suffer. Die. And rise in his mission of representing his father to all as love incarnated.

Peter, perhaps still a little high from hearing Jesus’ kudos for coming up with the right title, took Jesus aside to “talk” to him, perhaps get Jesus to put some spin on this horrific sounding statement about suffering, death, and rising.

But, Jesus would not budge from his own explanation of “messiah.” He states that peter must not try to lead him. Peter’s role is to follow him: “get behind me.” He calls him a “Satan,” for he is trying to divert divine design – a satanic ploy tried by Satan before his public ministry began.

Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am’ calls for an ongoing, evolving answer from each of us during the course of our lives. Our answers are at first limited by our very immature, spiritual vision. When very, very young we probably would have answered: “Baby Jesus.” Our answer must change as we mature. Hopefully, we who have reached at least confirmation age will move beyond that answer. We may, still later, answer that Jesus is “the understanding teacher from Nazareth,” we may move on in our difficult times to see Jesus as “the good shepherd.” Hopefully, we will evolve to image Jesus as unconditional love, incarnated. We come to understand his deep compassion for those suffering in body or spirit. He heals on the Sabbath if that is when the sick present themselves. No foolish, pharisaical prohibitions stop him when the Pharisees accuse him of doing forbidden work on the Sabbath.

In our maturity we listen to, understand, and act on Jesus’ admonition that we, like Jesus be intolerant of religious leaders who would hypocritically distort the father’s love into precepts that have no part in compassion.

May each of us evolve toward the fullness of the vision of Jesus’ unconditional love for his father and for all. We may not just bask in that love. We need to come to understand that unconditional love calls for our response just as it called for Jesus’ response to our father.

That response calls us to be servants, not masters in our relationships. Servants do not seek the first places in social gatherings; do not seek honor or recognition. Servants serve! When his thousands of followers were without food, he served their hungry stomachs with loaves of bread and their staple food, fish. When their minds and spirits hungered for wisdom, he served them the bread of wisdom. Ever the servant, he gave example of how we are to serve and work. When time for instruction was running out, he got down on his knees at the last supper and washed his disciples’ feet – the work of a servant.

As we mature, we see the hypocrisy of those who call themselves “public servants” and serve themselves generously and let the people who elected them suffer and pay for their “perks.” As we mature, we see the hypocrisy of those who call themselves “servants of the servants of god” and then act imperiously and dress as princes with rings and things – not as servants – and investigate those who honestly seek otherworld values.

And the good news is that when we become discouraged at hearing answers and responses other than “messiah-servant” answers and responses, when we see power abused, we have the great consolation of coming home to our parish community and celebrate Eucharist together, here at the table of the Lord.

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 9, 2018)

I read a press release on the anniversary of the “Common Ground Initiative.” The saintly, down-to-earth late archbishop of Chicago, Joseph Bernardin, began this movement. He saw the turmoil in our church: the right vs. the left, conservatives v progressives and called us all to look not upon how we differ, but upon what we have in common. He calls us to build upon what unites us. Hence, the common ground initiative. I could not agree more. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” says Jesus. The power of positive relationship unites.

In line with Jesus’ cure of the deaf man in the gospel, I would like to speak a bit about relationship and spiritual deafness. Communication is absolutely necessary in relationship -- divine or human. Communication is the very life-blood of relationship. Listening is the essential partner in communicating. If someone is deaf to the other, communication stops. Eventually, relationship weakens and possibly dies. We know this from our experience.

So often, the fear, suspicion and anger found in our society creeps into our church. Deep and persistent distrust of persons, motives and viewpoints exists in the Catholic Church: between old and young, laity and clergy, rich and poor, scholars and bishops. Our American pluralism is all too often a source of divisiveness rather than richness. Some people, unfortunately, are simply not interested in conversing with someone with differing opinions. That is sad. We are familiar with the saying: no one is so blind as one who will not see; I think we can safely say, “No one is so deaf as one who will not listen.”

The initiative’s efforts are to get people back communicating with one another - not as correctors, not as mediators, but recalling all that we are all members of the family of Christ and need to talk to one another, to listen to one another. We would improve the quality of our communication and the level of relationship.

I applaud a keynoter’s words: “listening is the necessary foundation for relationships with god and one another. Real listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give to another person; it establishes lasting relationships; it gives substance to words of love and friendship; it heals and allows us to grow in our knowledge of ourselves, others, and of God.” He recognizes all three aspects of our relationships: God - others - self.

We gather each week at Eucharist and speak with our Lord. Do we also listen to god’s word attentively in the readings? Do we listen to our Lord during quiet time after communion, or do we go on about our needs?

Today’s Gospel is helpful. We need to do what the deaf man did: seek out Jesus. Go off with him, away from the crowd. . . Spend time in his healing presence . . .give Jesus a chance to touch our hearts . . . Give Jesus the chance to put his finger in our ears by our being present to him and opening our ears to his word.

In the gathering space after mass, do we listen to one another? Or, do we generally gather only with our friends? A clique is not community. Do we meet and engage folks we do not yet know?

Hearing is a physical sense of our body. Listening is a learned skill. If we hear something affirming about ourselves, we tend to listen eagerly. If we hear criticism, do we react with a knee-jerk of denial? Or, do we listen in silence and slowly and honestly evaluate the criticism?

Let’s listen up!

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 2, 2018)

Today, we leave John’s “bread of life” discourse and return to Mark. Jesus has a few last words to the people of Galilee - the northern area of Palestine where he grew up. It is the last incident mark records of Jesus’ Galilean ministry - just before he headed south to Judea and its capital, Jerusalem, where he would die.

Mark shows the growing opposition of the Jews, instigated by the Jewish, religious leaders who had “come from Jerusalem.” The drama is building.

His listeners were unsettled because the Jerusalem crowd was reminding them of “the tradition of the elders.” The tradition of the elders was the Halakah, the oral law. In the second century, this would be written down as the Mishnah.

The purification/washing rites we heard in the Gospel were the Jewish leaders’ interpretations of the law of God, not the law. Sadly, these were being given equal importance to the law itself [the Torah]. Those washing rituals were meant to express a purification of the heart, not to substitute for it. They had been initially prescribed for the Levites [priests] and were later extended to include all Israelites.

The failure of Jesus’ disciples to observe these purification rites occasions the criticism from the Jews. Jesus quotes Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.”

What Jesus asks of them - and us - is simple, but profound and challenging. He wants our hearts. The heart is the center of a person for Jews as well as for us.

Jesus knows well that they and we can appear innocent, look like true followers, but our face does not mirror our heart. We may have an innocent smile on the outside, but our heart, our interior disposition, can be a mess. We may have the words, but not the music. We may carefully observe external rules within our religion, but our hearts, our internal disposition, can be seething with self-will.

What drives your heart? My heart? That question and its answer are what the work of lent is about. Today’s gospel raises this issue toward the end of vacation season. This is the time of year when many activities resume. This time of year is appropriate for a mini spiritual review. The question is Jesus’; our answer is the product of self- examination to produce self-knowledge. Knowledge of self is vital for both spirituality and sanity.

What drives our hearts, our center? The Gospel provided a list for us: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, deceit, envy, arrogance.” Very strong drives.

There are other more subtle drives / drivers of our hearts: religious indifference, because I put self-wants before God’s or neighbor’s. Sloth, because it is just too much work. My persona, because I do not want to appear to others as if I am hot on God. It may be ignorance: too often, we confuse the end, relationship, with the means, laws and devotions that get us into spiritual trouble.

We are often not aware of some of these drivers. They simply slip quietly into our lives without conscious effort. They may belittle our dark side that needs to be brought into the light by introspection. Once in the light, they are seen for what they are: barriers to becoming who we are called to be.

William Glasser developed a method he called “reality therapy” that focuses on changing our behavior patterns. He calls it “positive addiction,” and gave the examples of jogging and meditation. Beginning either of these or any new discipline is difficult. As we continue jogging or meditating, it becomes easier. If we stick with it, it becomes a healthy addiction that we simply cannot seem to do without.

This practice has a spin-off in the spiritual life. An ancient, nameless, wise person said: “The act is the parent of the habit; the habit is the parent of the virtue.” Perseverance is key. Per-severa: through the hard/severe stuff to habitually praying, doing good, attending mass.

As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This time of year is a good time for a heart check-up.

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 26, 2018)

Today brings to conclusion the bread of life summer insertion. We have seen in the last two weeks, Jesus the bread of life as food for thought; then as real food, real presence. The liturgical fact that the first reading is connected to the Gospel reading in theme is very apparent today.

Joshua had been a boy when Israel began its long march to freedom across the desert. Moses was his hero: how could Joshua have imagined that one day he would be Moses’ successor and have to confront the children of Israel . We hear: “if it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve: the gods of our fathers beyond the river or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling?” Joshua adds his personal answer and commitment: “As for me and my household, we will serve the lord.”

Failure to say “yes” to Joshua’s challenging question would have shown tremendous ingratitude for all that god had done in freeing the Jews from slavery in Egypt and guiding them to freedom in a new land.

Today, in our appendix to the bread of life discourse from john, we hear that after the discourse many followers of Jesus strongly reacted to his teaching on real presence: “This is a hard saying; who can accept it?”

We hear: “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”

Because many of his followers were leaving, Jesus, like Joshua many years earlier, had to confront directly his remaining followers on his critical teaching on Eucharist. He asked the twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” With this pointed question, he drew a line in the sand. Are you with me, or not? Defecate or abdicate. Fish or cut bait.

During Jesus’ life, peter seemed to put his foot in his mouth more than anyone else. But, peter’s answer today hits the nail right on the head. Peter answered with those never-to-be-forgotten words: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the holy one of God.” Perfect. “We have come to believe and are convinced.” The twelve have been eating the sapiential bread of life, the teachings of Jesus. In their time together, Jesus has given them much to think about, much to chew on. They trusted, [had faith], Jesus was the bread of life. They “believed,” as Peter said. And Peter added, they “are convinced,” they “know.”

They did not trust as much as they would later. They did not know as much as they would know later. They trusted and knew enough to stay with Jesus. Trusting and knowing comprise the process of us pilgrim followers.

At the beginning of this discourse, Jesus fed 5000 with some barley loaves and fish. Their understanding of him as a compassionate, holy man grew. They proclaimed him as “the prophet” - an important step forward on the faith journey.

Spiritual growth is trusting Jesus [faith] and coming to a deeper understanding. If we are convinced, as peter was, that Jesus is the holy one of God, then we believe that there is no better place to go apart from his presence. Progress in any relationship happens when we deepen trust and knowledge of the other. Is it not that way with friends, spouses? As time passes in good relationships, we more deeply trust the other based on our positive experience, and we know them better. A wonderful, mutual consciousness evolves.

This understanding is new wine that did not sit well with the departing followers of Jesus whose baggage was old wine skins; they broke ranks from Jesus with burst wine skins.

Those who believe and accept the truth of Jesus’ real presence in Eucharist participate and increasingly experience his presence in that intimate moment of Holy Communion. We have opportunity in that moment of union to pour out our hearts to him and listen. Sometimes, he speaks to us with non-verbal answers that come to us as at no other time. Sometimes, there is just silence. Silence is perfectly acceptable for those who love each other.

The departing ex-followers made a statement and asked a question: “This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?” like Joshua and peter and the other apostles, I answer in faith: “I can. I do.”

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 19, 2018)

What a wonderful gift the Eucharist is! Jesus gives us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink. And he commands us to eat and drink that we might have life – His life, eternal life.

Like Wisdom in today’s first reading, Jesus invites us to the meal he has prepared for us – a meal that enables us to unite ourselves to his saving death and resurrection. On the Cross, Jesus’ flesh was pierced and his blood shed for others,for you and me. As we eat and drink, we are called to “forsake foolishness that (we) might live; advance in the way of understanding.”

The words of Wisdom remind us that this is a sacred meal, a meal of covenant. God has given Jesus for our sake. In Jesus, God’s great love and mercy become visible, tangible. When we eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood, we are expressing our willingness to be one with Jesus in his saving mission to the world. We become his “good news” to today’s world.

Each day we seek to understand better how we are to live as members of this covenant community. In this meal, we become one with Jesus and one with the community – one in the Body of Christ. As we leave this sacred meal, we are challenged to live the daily reality of our oneness.

St. Francis de Sales offers us some practical advice on how to make this happen more effectively. He writes: “After Communion, consider Jesus seated in your heart and bring before him each of your faculties and senses in order to hear his commands and promise him fidelity.” This exercise can become our thanksgiving and our commitment to living out what we have celebrated and received. Jesus will offer us a way of using our intellect, our will, our memory, our hearing, our touching, our speaking today so that we can witness to God’s loving presence in the world.

We heard St. Paul encourage us: “Watch carefully how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise.” Our eating and drinking at the table of the Lord makes all of us one. May the wise way we live today and everyday make visible the oneness we experience here in Eucharist.

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 12, 2018)

Jesus explained to them: “I myself am the bread of life. No one who comes to me shall ever be hungry, no one who believes in me shall ever thirst.”

Today is week 3 of the 5 weeks dedicated to john’s sixth chapter on the bread of life.

The first reading from 1 Kings tells of Elijah’s eating bread, a hearth cake. It also tells us that this was quite the “power bar.” After eating two of them, we read that he walked for 40 days and 40 nights to Mt. Horeb where he re-examined his fear-ridden life, accepted once more the word of God and renews his trust in God.

The Hebrew bible has a tradition of knowledge being called the bread of the spirit. In Deuteronomy, we read a famous and familiar quote: “Not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the Lord. [8:3]

In John 6 we read of two different senses of Jesus’ speaking of himself as the bread of life. John follows a clear outline. He first quotes Jesus claim: “I am the bread of life.” Next, there is murmuring from the Jews. Finally, there is Jesus’ explanation of his saying, “I am the bread of life.” Today’s Gospel addresses the first sense in which Jesus uses the phrase: “I am the bread of life.”

Key to understanding the two parallel passages are the verbs that Jesus uses when he speaks about the “bread.” Let’s review today’s reading:

“No one comes to me shall ever be hungry, no one who believes in me shall ever thirst.” It is written in the prophets: God shall teach them all. Everyone who listens to my father and learns from him comes to me…this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.

Do you see how these verses correspond to the quote from Deuteronomy? “Not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the lord? We heard the verb - phrases: believes – taught by God – listens to my father – learns from him - eat[s] [this bread].

Jesus is proclaiming in today’s passage that he is “the bread of life” in the sense that he is food for the mind / heart. He gives us “something to chew on.” He is sapiential food. He is wisdom for those who listen to him, to those who accept him as the center of their lives. This food provides the one who accepts him with a life that is not at mere subsistence level, not simple existing. Bread is seen as something that is necessary for living a life that is fully alive. This bread of life provides an answer to the question of what living is for.

We can never underestimate the intelligence and the ingenuity of John the author. It is well accepted that this section of john 6 was calculated to express what we call “the liturgy of the word” in the celebration of Eucharist. It is at this time of our celebration that we turn our attention to a theme that is present in each Sunday celebration of Eucharist.

We first hear a connection to the Hebrew bible; we then usually hear a passage from the apostle, Paul; the final reading is from one of the four gospels. When we listen carefully each week, we hear the great themes from scripture in carefully chosen seasons of the year. These give us the history of salvation, the interventions of our god in the lives of those who have gone before us. During the season of Easter, the first reading is from the Acts of the Apostles that tells us the formative experiences of the early Christian church.

This is bread that thoroughly nourishes us. We realize that our concerns, our worries, our burdens, our joys are not unique to us. We hear of others who walked before us and experienced similar times. In a sense, these people are brought into ours lives in our day. We digest the bread of life and are eternally nourished on our journey.

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 5, 2018)

This passage from John follows the multiplication that we heard last week and precedes the heart of the “bread of life” discourse in weeks 3 and 4 and the curious conclusion in week 5. In today’s gospel, we see that the central dynamic between Jesus and the crowd is one familiar to us: Johannine misunderstanding – where we hear something that makes Jesus’ adversary sound “less enlightened, dumber” than we and, of course, not as smart as Jesus. It is like watching Sherlock Holmes and hearing Dr. Watson make some not-so-smart comments that make us smile.

The crowd did not get it. They thought after last week’s episode with the bread and fish that either he was a great source of inspiration that moved their hearts to share, or he was a wonderful, magical provider.

He said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Now, with this claim, he requires faith from them.

But . . . they want more proof. There was a strong rabbinic belief that when the messiah came into the world, he would bring a return of the manna. We recall that Jews believed that Moses’ greatest work was the gift of the manna, and also that the Messiah’s work would even surpass that. Moses and the Messiah would form highpoints of Jewish history. Their question, “What can you do?” was a challenge. The miracle of the 5000 was insufficient for them because in their judgment it was not certainly bread from God. It was ordinary bread from Moses. Is it not curious that the Hebrew word, manna, means, “What is it?”

Jesus reminded them that the manna was from God, not Moses and that the manna was only symbolic of the bread of life that came from God. He was claiming that complete satisfaction of hunger and thirst came from him, Jesus, who came from God.

Because “the bread of life” is the spiritual nourishment that god consistently gives to everyone, and because Jesus is the word who connects our father to us, it is Jesus who is the “bread of life” and whose relationship with you and me empowers us never to experience spiritual hunger or thirst. Never to experience spiritual hunger or thirst is a not as good way of saying that “Jesus is life.” as in “the way, the truth, and the life.”

In this climactic exchange, he claims that the reality of God is present in the person of Jesus.

This is heady stuff. It is why an eagle in Christian art symbolizes John the evangelist, the traditional author of the fourth Gospel. He soars with us to the heights of theology. He never calls what we refer to as “miracles” as “miracles.” He calls them “signs.” He neatly included them after the prologue in the first twelve of the twenty-five chapters in his Gospel, and before the “book of glory” – the story of his passion and death with an added appendix.

Next week and the following week we will get to the heart of the bread of life discourse.

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 29, 2015)

Our first reading provides a mini-parallel from the Old Testament. It tells of Elisha feeding 100 people with 20 barley loaves.

The setting for today’s gospel is the place where God and man traditionally meet: a mountain - Mount Sinai where the 10 commandments were given, the mountain of the transfiguration, the mount of the beatitudes, and today, the mountain for the feeding of the 5000. The exact location is not recorded. We know that the place was near the Sea of Galilee. The time is near Passover, which appropriately conjures up the time of the Last Supper. Although place and time are sketchy, it is a story so important that it is the only miracle story that is found in all four gospels.

The traditional story of their lack of food is the segue for Jesus to begin to speak of himself as the bread of life. A difficulty with the traditional understanding is that it was precisely the temptation to make bread had been a temptation that Jesus rejected outright in the desert before he began his public ministry.

There is an alternative explanation for the miracle that has come more recently. Jews of Jesus’ day were seasoned travelers. They well knew that there were no golden arches of McDonald’s, or KFC’s or other fast food places. Ancient Jews were famous for always carrying a bottled-shaped basket called a kophinos in which they carried kosher food to avoid ritual impurity.

So, an alternative interpretation is that when the Jewish followers saw that Jesus had them sit down and then Jesus took the boy’s barley loaves and fish and shared them, they were moved and followed his good example and also shared what they carried. This interpretation is surely in line with Jesus’ many sayings about sharing: he praised the poor widow who gave the little she had, two pennies. Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. We recall the Good Samaritan who generously shared with an “outsider” in need. We recall how the enthusiastic Zacchaeus gave half of what he possessed to the poor.

Which of the two interpretations is correct? The traditional, almost magical interpretation has been preached for a long time, but the innovative interpretation does give us pause. Pause is good. The second interpretation stirs many reminders besides the words of Jesus just mentioned.

  • It reminds us of the then current Jewish practice of carrying food.
  • It reminds us that the bread came from barley, not wheat; barley was the bread of the poor – a reminder to us of simplicity.
  • It reminds us that the bread came from barley, not wheat; barley was the It reminds us of the difference in two disciples: Phillip, a native of that area, said, in effect, feeding the large crowd was a hopeless endeavor, while Andrew, the apostle famous for bringing people to Jesus, brought the boy to Jesus. He did something – a reminder to us to do something.
It reminds us that our Lord can take what we bring and do wonders. Remember Alex’s lemonade stand and how a little girl stole the hearts of us all with her simple, generous, loving heart with amazing results to this day.

It reminds you and me that in our cooperating with our lord in the coming of the kingdom, an even greater miracle than making bread is softening the hearts of others.

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 22, 2018)

Last Sunday we heard Jesus sending out the twelve on their first missionary journey. Today, we hear of their return from ministry. This is the only time in mark’s gospel that the term “apostle” appears, referring to the twelve.

Jesus compassionately reads the situation. He does not encourage them to do more or to do better. In his compassionate wisdom, he knows that they need time to rest and to relax.

I think that Jesus would add a third r to our secular notion of R&R. Rest and relaxation are absolutely necessary, but so is a third R: reflection -- to determine where we are, where we are going. Jesus guides his apostles toward a quiet place.

It turns out to be not so quiet, so he takes over the teaching and allows the twelve to rest. The three R’s can be delayed, but never omitted. After all, Jesus promised refreshment for the tired: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavily burdened; I will refresh you.”

You are disciples. Many - no, most - of you minister to the community. Often, when you do not name what you are doing as ministry you minister to an elderly parent or lonely relative, - listening to oft’ repeated stories, adjusting to slowness of gait. You minister to a needy child - taking the time to play, to answer a hundred questions. You minister to a hurting friend by your presence. You minister to a sick neighbor by shopping, preparing a meal. Besides all that, you work at keeping yourself and your household going.

When the boat crunches up on the sand on the far side of the lake, Jesus, without complaint, ministers to the people who interrupted his plan. The Twelve are not mentioned. Likely, Jesus sent them off for rest, relaxation, and reflection on the conversation they had while crossing the four miles on the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus has something to say to you today. You, too, need to take time for the 3 R’s. Rest, relax, and reflect. Deliberate rest and relaxation are essential for healthy living. Reflection is essential for establishing a balance between work and R&R.

Jesus did not push the twelve beyond their limits, nor does he push you. He may be leading you by posing some questions:

  • Where am I on the continuum of work and the three R’s? Extremes are easy to reach. Extreme work leads to burnout. Extreme rest leads to rust. Extreme introspection leads to scrupulosity or spiritual self-centeredness. The alternative extreme leads to being a workaholic. There will always be something to do or some “reason” to do little or nothing. Balance is the challenge.

  • What is the quality of my rest? Am I renewed after rest/relaxation? Does my rest usually make me feel good about returning to activity? Downtime is not “one size fits all.” It is relative to where one is in life at any given time. Once again, we need balance.

  • How can I allow Jesus to minister to me? Do I need more interior, prayer to discern god’s will? Rote prayer can become a regimen of “busy work” that actually avoids honest conversation with our Lord.
Summer provides weather for relaxation and the suspension and slowdown of many church ministries. For active parishioners who are weary, summer provides a needed break from ministry. For not-so-active parishioners, it provides a time for reflection on choices for a fresh start in September.

We need to meet Jesus in the quiet place before we meet him in the market place.

In Eucharist we meet our Lord. Let’s receive him and follow him into both ministry and into the three R’s.