"Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."
Who Woulda Thought?
to begin this Christmas season by focusing on the call of the shepherds
rather than moving right to the Nativity. In fact, if you follow the
various gospel readings that the Church offers, you would find the vigil
Mass (afternoon of the 24th) through the daytime Mass (Sunday
mid-morning) you would find the Christmas story and the theology of the
Christ across three of the four gospels--quite a rich fare which few,
the shepherds, then. Shepherds were a despised lot in Jesus' time. You
can lump them in with tax collectors, prostitutes and Samaritans. Of
course, as we have seen throughout God's interaction with humanity, this
makes them prime candidates for a special grace. So, it was to them
the invitation was extended. The much discussed "wise men" or magi,
come later (probably didn't arrive until a year or so after the birth).
the story goes, as with all angelic visitations, it begins with fear.
It takes a lot to scare a shepherd who defends his flock from any number
of hazards; they are a grizzly lot.
the gospel records, "...they were struck with great fear". The appeal
of the angel not to fear is based upon the message of a savior that will
"be for all the people." This is followed by a "multitude of the
heavenly host" singing "Glory to God in the highest". Quite a night for
the shepherds, and some essential truths about the nature of God and
salvation for us tonight.
God's appointing David as king (the least likely candidate), God's favor
rests on Mary, Joseph, outsiders like the magi and shepherds. Notice
the absence of anyone really important like Temple priests,
scribes, pharisees, important legates or even the chief priest. God's
dealing once again with the consummate outsiders, widely believed to be
outside of salvation history. How ironic, then, that these were the
people most intimately associated with God's arrival as the Christ.
If Advent has sharpened our senses for
seeking justice and finding a place with the poor to be in the right
place, this visitation of the shepherds remind us that we are now in the
right place at the right time---with the poor, alone, late in the
is with the outcast, far from the comfort of day, deep in the night,
that God's greeting arrives proclaiming joy and salvation. The line
from T.S. Eliot's poem Four Quartets comes to mind "...and now,
under conditions that seem unpropitious." Like so much of what God has
done in his relationship with humanity: "Who woulda thought?"
In your deepest
moment of darkness and doubt, when your prayers are bouncing back off
of the ceiling, ridiculing your attempt to reconnect with God after
seemingly failing every time, I want to remind you that those prayers
that you think mock your devotion made it through. They were in God's
heart before they ever left your lips.
Like the shepherds, the most unlikely folks in the most unlikely place,
God finds us. Search no further than your need, your loneliness, your
feelings of being left out. For the still small voice of God speaks to
you here, now, in this blog, inviting you to come home and find the sign
of God being with you in the most humble of circumstances. Join with
Christians world wide to not give up following the light until it rests
over the manger where Christ is to be found---in the most unlikely
place, at the most unlikely time.
Reprinted from Christmas, 2012
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Sunday, December 22, 2013
It's All in the Family
Today’s Old Testament short reading needs a bit of background:
So, the Jewish world is divided during the time referred to by Isaiah; the northern and southern kingdoms. The northern kingdom is Israel and the southern one is Judah (of which Jerusalem is a part and where the Temple is located). To make a long story (a few thousand years) shorter, Israel’s king was in cahoots with the king of Aram to lay siege to Jerusalem. Judah’s king (Ahaz), against the advice of the prophet Isaiah, makes an alliance with Assyria saying “I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” Ahaz gives the Assyrian king treasure from the Temple (and palace) as an incentive to help. Ahaz knows this is wrong to rely on outside help, and Isaiah counsels unconditional faith and reliance on God; Ahaz piously refuses. Ahaz’s son Hezekiah became the “savior” of his people, likely the child referred to by Isaiah in his prophecy to Ahaz:” …the young woman [also translated virgin] shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” Hezekiah restores the righteousness of Judah and defeats the king of Assyria. He re-centralizes the Passover worship and invites all tribes to Jerusalem for Passover and restores righteous rule in Jerusalem.
Both Matthew and Luke pick up on this narrative framework in their account of Jesus’ birth. God’s help for Judah was of great comfort to the early Christians who, like Judah, were under “siege”. Jesus’ birth under the Davidic line assures Matthew’s audience of a savior that is the final fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, the ultimate Emmanuel.
Although Jesus did not make much of his ancestry---probably to de-emphasize the nature of his reign as spiritual rather than temporal---the post-Easter Christian community re-emphasized this as a source of authority and claim on messiahship. The Davidic emphasizes in the New Testament emphasizes Jesus’ lowly, earthly life when contrasted with the risen savior of the Resurrection (Reginald Fuller).
The remarkable birth of Jesus as a convergence between the earthly lineage and divine is a great symbol as to the genesis of our restoration with God through Christ’s earthly ministry and the subsequent indwelling of the Holy Spirit; God with us, after the Resurrection, becomes God within us. Christmas is the promise realized to its fulfillment the post-Easter community. We have become part now of the Davidic line, through Christ, and by God’s adoption of us as co-heirs (not heirs!) with Christ of God’s promise of salvation. As the saying goes, God has no grandchildren; Jesus is our brother. We are family by God’s choice.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
“Are you the one who is to come,or should we look for another?”—John the Baptist asking about Jesus
The most striking part of today’s gospel is John’s disillusionment with Jesus embodied in his question sent as by messenger to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus’ reply, however, is even more striking. Instead of simply saying, “Yes, I am he”, he asks the messenger to report back to John what he has seen:
“…the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.”
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.”
Notice Jesus isn’t saying “I give the blind their sight, I heal the lame”, but is directing the attention to the acts themselves as evidence of God’s presence surrounding his ministry. Jesus isn’t trying to prove his divinity, he is announcing God being in their midst; practice before doctrine.
The Kingdom of Heaven is, above all other things, built upon acts of healing and justice as signs of God’s presence. To find the Messiah, you need to look where the Messiah hangs out: with those who are outcast, sick, with those who are poor. God’s kingdom, as Jesus proclaimed to Pilate “is not of this world”, but what he didn’t explain was that it can be found in this world. He knew that the hardness of Pilate’s heart would prevent him from seeing God’s grace in action because like so many, Pilate would have looked for the Messiah as groups of devoted Jews looking to establish a new political order.
Like many of us, John found it difficult to believe that God’s justice does not involve some new political order, a new way of organizing society, yet another manifesto that if we interpret it correctly and follow it faithfully, are guaranteed “heaven on earth”; that is not the kingdom of heaven. The Kingdom is built around a way of being in this world but not being of this world.
It is telling the reaction of the crowd who encountered Jesus in John’s place. In the next section of the gospel, after Jesus declares “…blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” we see the crowd leaving and Jesus calling out to them:
“What did you expect to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you expect to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet?”
Jesus then affirms John’s role as the preparer of the way while proclaiming “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. It is time to begin our journey on the way rather than to stay preparing the way. It is time to follow God’s trail that leads to the poor, the diseased, the discarded humanity who are beacon’s for God’s presence in our world today. When we are in the presence of these people, away from power and influence, we find the Christ child.
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Ready the Way of the Lord"His winnowing fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing floor"(John the Baptist)
Today, we make a shift from focusing on the “end times” to the other end of our journey, preparing for the coming of Messiah! It is a preparation that harkens back to the time when John the Baptist was preparing the way by preaching repentance in the wilderness, but it is also the preparation we live today that anticipates the revelation of God’s kingdom more perfectly.
We begin our story as we Christians often do, with our Jewish brothers and sisters who first heard and responded to God’s revelation. Isaiah’s text celebrates the arrival of the perfect king with three sets of distinguishing virtues: deep wisdom and understanding, might and counsel, and knowledge and fear of God—virtues of intelligence, practical ability and piety. What more could one ask of a leader? Alas, this hope faded over time.
With the birth of Jesus, King of King and Lord of Lords, Emmanuel—God-With-Us, the kingdom was not fully realized, but Jesus’ coming set in motion the building of the kingdom. Just as John pointed the way of Messiah, Jesus pointed the way of God’s Kingdom, and the Holy Spirit continues to guide us and provide us with hope. John’s “reading of the way” now is transformed into our mandate to “walk the way” made by Jesus for a people who were originally known as “People of the Way”.
John’s preparation of repentance for the coming of Jesus the first time is still valid today for us who set out on the way of Christ. Before we plot a course, we have to know where we are in relationship to our destination; that is why repentance is part of Advent. Repentance, as the word suggests, orients us a hundred and eighty degrees from our present course; it turns us around and gets us going in the right direction. John uses the image of the winnowing fan separating the valuable wheat from the waste of the chaff. The chaff is the lighter and unusable part of the wheat and must be separated from the valuable kernel of the wheat itself. Often this is preached as a metaphor for God punishing the unrighteous as “chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. While this may be valid, for us it is also an opportunity to see a more personal dimension to repentance. The chaff are all those things that accumulate in our lives that obscure the true wheat of Christ; the Good News. Though the ministration of the Holy Spirit, the Breath of God, we can let go of all that is not Good News both for ourselves and for others. Advent is a time for looking at what we cling to that keeps us from paying attention to our destination, for dulling our sense of direction as well as destination.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
"My kingdom does not belong to this world" --Jesus, The Gospel of JohnThere is that famous line from the Mel Brooks's movie History of the World: Part I,"It's good to be king!" Being king brings up beautiful imagery of elaborate court ritual, absolute authority, and feasting; sounds a lot like the institutional church! But Jesus' words to Pilate betray this image of opulence. When asked about his kingdom, Jesus replies "My kingdom does not belong to this world" (New American Bible). Another translation has it as "My kingdom is not of this world"(New International Version). The sense of Jesus' reply is that his kingdom is neither the kingdom of Rome nor the kingdom envisioned by the religious authorities; both groups lose.
The Solemnity of Christ the King that embraces Jesus as king is relatively new. It was established in 1925 to counter what the Church saw as an increasing tendency to worship human wisdom and power, which was loosely defined as modernism. By later positioning the solemnity at the end of the Church's liturgical year in 1969, it further enhanced its standing as the summit of Christ's rule, and, implicitly, the Church as Christ's kingdom.
The songs and imagery associated with this celebration, however, often blunt the irony of Christ as king. The common representation is of a resurrected, non-bloody, Jesus hovering (rather than being nailed) on the cross. The image of Christ as king is ironic because he is the king with a crown of thorns with a procession of humiliation and a knightly court of cowards. It seems, as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God."
The ironic image of Jesus as king nailed to the cross speaks of a different kind of power than the power of earthly kingdoms. In a general audience at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI suggests ". .the Cross reveals ‘the power of God’ which is different from human power; it reveals, in fact, His love.”
The power of God's kingdom as embodied by Jesus' death isn't exclusively revealed by the resurrection, although the saving power of God is most apparent here. It is the magnitude of God's love for His creation in self-sacrifice that shows Christ's real power as king.
The ultimate love is the love that sacrifices self for another. This is the real power that defines Christ's kingdom. This is why evil can never ultimately triumph over good; evil avoids self-sacrifice. Evil always seeks what is best for the self over and against the other. It destroys community and ultimately destroys itself.
Self-sacrificing love, on the other hand, is the ultimate Christian act where one falls into the opened arms of Christ on the cross, trusting in the power of God's ability to bring life from death. Christ's kingdom, indeed, is not of this world, but it is for this world. Nothing is of more importance than conforming ourselves to this likeness of Christ as King.
Saturday, November 16, 2013
Who Can Separate Us from the Love of God?
The list of “apocalyptic” world-ending prophecies is a storied history of disappointment beginning with Simon Bar Giora, an Essene, around 70 C.E. to Warren Jeffs in 2012. It is probably not unreasonable to suggest that humanity has been predicting the “end times” since we could conceive of such a thing. Opening the lid (the meaning of apocalypse) on the date and time seems to be a way of expressing an ending one can control, a way of assuring the suffering that someday “every tear will be wiped away.” Far from gloom and doom, the “end times” seem to suggest a great reconciling; good for the insiders, but sad for the ones who aren’t part of the “in-crowd.” That’s the problem with much of how we understand recent apocalyptic predictions: we’re always saved. Malachi’s vision of the apocalypse, however, brings judgment on his people as many of the Old Testament prophets did. The “in-crowd” constituted those who remained faithful and obedient, honoring God’s law and worshiping God with sincerity and trust. Let’s face it; it is a lot easier to sacrifice a diseased animal than a healthy one, to give a bit less than ten percent, or to go outside the Law when it was convenient. The difficulty of remaining faithful is the history of salvation.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is also declaring a vision of destruction; sometimes called the “Mini Apocalypse” because it deals only with the Temple destruction as a final event; however, the Temple was the world for the Jews. Like the vision of Enoch, though, apocalyptic visions tend to accumulate events and expand as time goes on. Nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, famines, and plagues were all a reality for the first century Jew. The early church knew much of being “hated by all because of my name” and the experience of standing powerless before one’s adversaries. Indeed, Christians found themselves “led before kings and governors.” In Iran and other places hostile to the Gospel of Christ, Christians continue to be jailed, tortured and killed. In September of 2013, BBC Radio quoted Archbishop Welby speaking of persecution in Egpyt and Pakistan: “The appearance is often deceptive but I think Christians have been attacked in some cases simply because of their faith,” he said. “I think it is true to say – and also in Peshawar – that we have seen more than 80 martyrs in the last few days. “They have been attacked because they were testifying to their faith in Jesus Christ by going to church”(The Telegraph.co.uk). It is puzzling, then, when Jesus declares “…not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance, you will secure your lives”. Seemingly, the suffering and death of tens of thousands of Christians stand in testimony against such an optimistic prediction.
The turn comes in realizing that death is not equated with destruction for Christians. Who can destroy us? Who can destroy what connects us to the immortality and eternity of God? Our perseverance is being Good News, of finding refuge for ourselves in our community of faith that includes the Blessed Trinity, all the saints and our brothers and sisters of our faith community. Martyrdom is a communal affair; perseverance is never in isolation of the support and community offered by the Church on earth. The sacraments tie us to this eternal source of grace and belonging that is tangible, physical, bridging the temporal and eternal. Who can now separate us from the love of God?
Sunday, October 27, 2013
Gustave Dore - The Pharisee and the Publican
Last week's posting has an epigraph from Meister Eckhart, one of the church's great mystics, who famously wrote that if you only had a single prayer to pray, "Thank you" would suffice.
This week, we continue with the general theme of prayer with the righteous Pharisee as an exemplar of how not to pray and the sinful "publican," or tax collector, the one whose prayer for mercy was answered. As usual, the unexpected is central to this parable, but this is not one of Jesus' many Kingdom parables; it is, rather, a parable about relating directly to God.
Jesus famously had told his disciples how to pray with the gift of the Our Father; however, he doesn't answer the question when asked by his disciples how to pray directly. Instead, he tells them what to pray for. Today's gospel moves into one's disposition in prayer, the how, that is directed at all of us because gift easily becomes possession (Daniel Harrington, S.J.).
The Pharisee's prayer was more horizontal than vertical; that is, his prayer was gratitude for not being connected with sinners, of being an island of righteousness.
O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --
greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.
greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.
His gratitude springs from "not being like the rest of humanity," it begins in separation, focusing on his side-view of a sinner. And the tax collector was a sinner. Let's not make him into some noble hero. Tax collectors were famous sellouts in Jesus' time. They were Jews who profited from their association with the Romans and were allowed to keep whatever more they could collect from their fellow Jews and had the power to have non-compliant Jews arrested. As with most people invested with such power, the power was abused, and these folks were famously despised. The Pharisees were a group of religious scholars who were trying to bring the average Jew hope by helping the average person live a righteous life through the commentary on the Torah that translated the Law into practice. St.Paul is, perhaps, the most famous Pharisee to become a Christian. The Pharisee's pride grew from being socially, educationally, and religiously set apart from the people he was called to lead. I think there is a lesson somewhere in it for me as a priest, and for anyone in a position of authority within the church. I can imagine such pride was incremental and crept in as he appropriated each compliment and praise received from the people he helped, growing like a wildfire until it consumed him in the deception that what they adored was him rather than God's gift to him. The tax collector had no such delusions.
The tax collector's prayer was vertical; off at a distance, and prostrated, he couldn't even see or hear the Pharisee. The tax collector's sins were too painful for him to list. He simply prays "Have mercy on me, a sinner!" Scripture says he went away justified; God forgave his sins not because he was a righteous person, but because he prayed from his poverty rather than his wealth. The Pharisee prayed from what he considered his great possessions: his righteousness. Like the widow only putting a penny for the Temple collection, she gives all she has. She isn't donating a small portion of her wealth; Jesus observes in that parable that "she gave from her poverty." In prayer, we must pray from our poverty because this is our state in relation to God. We have nothing to stand on but clay feet, but it is the same clay God formed, it is human clay, and it is the source of true humility and genuine gratitude because God has redeemed it in Christ.
It is when we pray from our poverty that we tap the riches that God has given to us. Time and time again, God's grace seeks out the humble, the lowly and the dispossessed. Throughout salvation history, God visits the least regarded and comes to visit and give great comfort. There is something in the nature of God that desires such intimacy like that of a mother caring for her sick child. We don't need to be great and notorious sinners to attract God's notice, but merely to be people who understand they share the lot of humanity in the struggle to image the Divine. The Oscar Wilde quotation "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" comes to mind. Our prayer is always a cry for mercy when we begin with being grateful for having the vision of the stars from the gutter.
Saturday, October 19, 2013
"Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances" 1Thessalonians 5:16-17
“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
One of the greatest acts of faith is prayer. Prayer acknowledges God explicitly and is done with the hope that God is listening. To surround one's daily life in prayer, to strive to "pray without ceasing" is to hold on to the tail of a tiger and not let go.
Today's gospel has a widow holding on to the tail of a tiger in the form of a judge who refuses to hear her case, but she prevails in the end because she refuses to let the matter drop. Out of sheer fatigue, boredom, or a desire to simply get on with it, the judge finally relents, and she is afforded justice because of her perseverance. Jesus uses this story to suggest that his disciples will soon find themselves like the widow, alone and in need of help and that the only way to proceed is to pray and not lose faith. Jesus links faith with the endurance of prayer by asking "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
How much more, Jesus reasons, will God who loves you hear your prayer and act decisively to render judgment? The word "quickly" in the scripture does not indicate a short time from asking, but rather the speed of God's action once God acts, His decisiveness. As we read a couple of weeks ago, faith the size of a mustard seed is all that is required because faith is not measured in degrees; it is experienced by its presence or absence.
Faith is not something that is mainly feeling but is an action guided by the will and sustained by the strength of hope. Though we tire, and at times fail to pray formally, our fatigue and desire for prayer itself is a prayer. Reciting to oneself "Oh God, I wish I could pray" is a prayer. Constant prayer is living with this awareness.
The strong tradition of the "Jesus Prayer" in the Orthodox Church ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner") is the mantra-like prayer that infuses one's being so that prayer is made constant in the awareness of one's beating heart or breathing. The practice of stillness, or waiting upon God as prayer has a long and honored tradition within Christianity. Lighting a candle, paying attention to one's breath and only finding oneself in God's presence is also prayer. Today, we might say that books on all manner of praying abound, and sell very well; whether or not anyone is praying is another matter.
Prayer may not satisfy us that we are praying, but this need not distract us. Lifting our hearts to God, desiring to be seen by God in our hesitation, our fear, our inability to form words allows the Spirit to pray in us and through us. Being involved in praying can be as simple as sitting quietly and listening for God's "quiet, whispering voice." We don't have faith because we pray. We pray because we already have faith. It is God, through the Holy Spirit, which ultimately makes prayer possible. We have this great stream of prayer running directly through our heart like a great torrent. We have only to jump in and let it carry us for God's "quickness" to be realized.
Saturday, October 12, 2013
Ten had Faith; One had Gratitude
Today's reading from The Book of Kings and the Gospel of Luke highlight healing and the outsider. In Kings, Naaman, a Syrian, is healed by Elisha as a sign of God's blessing to those outside Israel. In Luke, of the ten healed of leprosy, it is only the Samaritan that returns to give thanks. Both the Samaritan and Syrian have the dubious distinction of being least-favored, not part of the "Chosen Ones," yet God's blessing rests on them.
In the gospel story, the ten lepers are outside the city and cry to Jesus not directly for healing, but for mercy. Such a cry reveals the connection between illness and a loss of favor with God; if you were sick, you had lost favor with God. Jesus doesn't pray for them, but simply commands them to journey to a priest to be certified as being healed. They had to begin the journey still uncured. It was on their way that they were healed; this was their faith that got them moving.
Faith requires us to act as if what we proclaim has already been brought about. This is why there is always an element of the absurd in living a life of faith. St. Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians, chapter 1:
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.
What, then, is the point of returning to give thanks if everyone was healed? The other nine didn’t return to a leprous state because gratitude can only be a gift, not a requirement. The gratitude of the Samaritan was rewarded by the relationship with Christ, a personal encounter one-on-one the other nine did not establish. The Samaritan’s gift was relationship---the ongoing and direct connection to God.
This story also serves to highlight another reality of the Christian life. While a Christian may have faith, faith enough even to heal, that doesn’t mean she or he has that intimacy and closeness that those whose faith is sustained by gratitude enjoy. Gratitude is what sustains us when we are not healed, for whatever reason; when our prayers seem to go unanswered. Gratitude is what allows us to pass the blessings of our faith to others. The other nine were healed, but how many lived that restoration and “returned Glorifying God in a loud voice”? One.We are called to “Glorify God in a loud voice” by displaying our gratitude, living our life as a gift from God that we can share with the world, with the “foreigners”, the outsiders who cannot lay claim to any blessing other than the one we can give that comes from God.
Sunday, October 6, 2013
Having heard the voice of God, how could one’s heart be hardened? Last week we began a subtle transition from focusing on justice for the poor and shifting our focus to faith. Last week Jesus’ story quoted Abraham speaking to Dives who was seeking a spectacle to save the faith of his ancestors, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” Faith does not grow from spectacle; however, the apostles seem to be asking Jesus to somehow “increase their faith.” His reply isn’t a recipe for “increasing,” but suggests they already possess sufficient faith.
"If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
The mustard seed is famously small---roughly the size of a grain of sand. Essentially, Jesus is saying “If you had any faith, you would not have to ask for more.” Faith isn’t something that comes in all sizes; it comes in one size. The gift of faith, though, is often seen as a type of passivity, of letting life wash over oneself and hoping for the best. This passivity, however, is heresy. It is called “quietism.” Because faith has an element of endurance and patience, it doesn’t mean that faith is only waiting for something to happen.
The three cardinal virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love are joined for a reason. They are joined because they complement one another and work together. One aspect of this trinity can be understood as true faith engenders hope and the courage to love in the face of evil and doubt. Despair is the relinquishing of hope and is not the same thing as feeling depressed or defeated or searching for hope in the chaos and disappointment that marks many lives of people with faith. True despair is acting in the world as if there was no hope; hating rather than loving, because “What’s the point? Life is meaningless anyway; why not hate?” Just as faith engenders love through hope, despair allows for hatred by renouncing hope. One a virtue, the other a mortal sin, but they both are realized in action.
The “hardened heart” is the heart that lives from despair. Even the heart that has heard the Lord’s voice can despair because very often where faith leads us, the heart fears to go. Make this a spiritual practice and the heart stiffens in unnatural reluctance to love, to be vulnerable. What unlocks the potential of faith (rather than simply “strengthening” it) is action expressed in loving despite feelings of fear, doubt, and despair. Love is not a feeling; it is a commitment to action in response to Christ’s command to love God and love one’s neighbor. If you wait to feel like loving someone, your love will only serve an emotional need.
If you respond to God with “I can’t possibly do this!”, listen for the reply “You are right. You can do nothing without me." Open your heart and let the Spirit live and guide you”. We are indeed, as the gospel says “unprofitable servants,” we bring God no profit through loving others. Loving others, especially those for whom the feeling of love is absent, is God’s gift to us, and the source of God's great gift of grace.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
“'If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'" Luke 16:31
Sometimes when I am not presiding at Mass, my mind wanders (actually, it wanders when I’m presiding, too, on occasion). What I imagine seeing is a great white light descending from the crucifix and a low, soothing voice proclaiming: “Everyone here today who is sick is healed; everyone who cannot pay your monthly bills, your debts canceled; everyone whose relationships have become broken is healed.” Of course, there is stunned silence, and then great rejoicing. The Eucharist becomes energized with profound thanksgiving as befits its name. Thousands flock to the next Mass, etc…you get the idea.
These daydreams arise, I suspect, from what I call “faith fatigue.” So often in our daily lives, we are confronted by problems and suffering that overwhelm us and our perceived ability to make a "meaningful" response. As the psalmist laments in Psalm 73:
“This is what the wicked are like-- always carefree, they increase in wealth. Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning.”
This story of the rich man, Dives, and Lazarus was familiar to Jesus’ time and was used to encourage its listeners to act with justice towards the poor. But, in true form, Jesus re-works the common line of “treat the poor with justice” by revealing the source of why folks fail in living with compassion towards the poor. Jesus uses the story about the rich man(Dives) suffering in the afterlife and Lazarus resting comfortably in “Abraham’s bosom,” a type of Heaven, as being more than a punishment-reward story; it is more than a kind of “poor man’s revenge” tale. The story gets at why people ignore the prophetic in their lives. I say “prophetic” rather than prophets because prophecy comes to us in many different forms.
The gist is that spectacle will not convince if people are not disposed to see it. In other words, you can’t grow faith from spectacle. Using the typical figure of a “leap of faith,” William Sloane Coffin once preached “First you leap, and then you get wings.” One must embrace Faith before “Moses and the prophets” become credible sources of wisdom.
It would seem self-evident that treating the poor with justice is an ethic that needs no faith; however, what constitutes “justice” is always the part most easily rationalized. Jesus, after all, is famously quoted that “the poor you will always have with you.” This, taken from when the poor woman anointed Jesus’ feet at Bethany with expensive perfumed oil and the disciples were indignant at the apparent waste of something that could have been sold and used to help the poor. The lesson in connection to what constitutes “justice” reveals that it isn’t simply a matter of raising money and giving it away, but living your “justice” as something that flows from one’s worship of God. To paraphrase a famous advocate and social justice worker, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “God has not called me to be successful; he has called me to be faithful.” The social justice of the Christian is animated by how we view every human, not just the poor ones. It comes from a faith lived that is oriented towards loving the world, but its source is distinctly divine.
If we would simply do good to avoid punishment in the afterlife, then our works are in vain; such dedication to humanity cannot be sustained out of fear, but only out of love. The saints were all first in love with God before they loved humanity with such passion. We seek the Kingdom first in relationship, a living and dynamic relationship with the Divine so that the words of “Moses and the prophets” mean more than yet another voice “crying out in the wilderness” telling us to act with justice.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
"You cannot serve both God and mammon"--Jesus, Luke 16:13
For Christians, the wealth we have to share is the amount we have that we do not need. Jesus needed nothing and admonished his disciples to “carry nothing with you.” Poverty as a Christian virtue isn’t the poverty of not having enough, but rather it is the grace of not seeking more than we need. The widow who gave from her need was blessed rather than the person of means giving proportionally less from his wealth. One gave in faith; the other gave secure in the knowledge that his sacrifice could not result in any hardship. Ultimately, for the Christian, it is the giving of our greatest gift, our life, for others. To live for others and with others, is the real ethic of Christian wealth. God gave himself to humanity, all he had to Jesus, that we might have all that God has; he has held nothing for himself. He came into the world poor, and died with only a purple cloak on loan, but gave humanity the gift of Himself.
The word “mammon” means more than money. At its root, it implies anything that we rely on for our life. Luke Timothy Johnson suggests in his commentary on Luke that Jesus might have been using the word as a bilingual pun with the word for faith. An intriguing prospect; instead of the pairing of God vs. Money, it now is a pairing of “what we place our faith in other than God” versus “our faith in God.” This isn’t to suggest that we can safely exclude money from our understanding. Clearly, given the context of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples, money is the key element; however, it does broaden our concern not to exclude anything else that we might place our faith in other than God.
As in Jesus’ time, money is a fundamental source of security. Money provides for our basic needs, but it can also afford us an independence that is inimical to the gospel. Paul Piff, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, recently completed a study which suggests that the wealthiest Americans are less likely to engage in ethical behavior than the poorest. Most striking was, however, the relative likelihood of giving to charity. Piff found The wealthiest Americans donate 1.3 percent of their income; the poorest, 3.2 percent. Piff speculates that the poor live dependent upon one another more than the wealthy. In a nutshell, independence from one’s neighbor is the defining social aspect of being rich.
The gospel understanding of wealth regarding insulating the wealthy from the community is at the heart of Jesus’ and Amos’ admonitions in today’s readings. William Sloane Coffin once declared in a sermon “To believe you can approach transcendence without drawing nearer in compassion to suffering humanity is to fool yourself. There can be no genuine personal religious conversion without a change in social attitude”. This is key in today’s gospel.
The spiritual toxin of wealth is the building of barriers between oneself and those who suffer. But we can do this wall building, to some extent, without great riches. All it takes is the desire to avoid those who suffer, and make it a priority to avoid any form of suffering at all cost. If the gospel teaches us anything, it teaches us to join in the mess and suffering of those on the margins of society, to need less so that we may share more of what we have. Wealth, for St. John Chrysostom, was associated with thievery:
"Not to share our wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs." [St. John Chrysostom (+ 407 A.D), On Wealth and Poverty, p. 55, SVS, Crestwood, NY 1984]