Oh How Can It Go So Wrong?

humilityWho among us has not felt the ugly cloak of self-righteousness upon our shoulders? For most of us, it is a humbling and heartbreaking experience, one that leaves us filled with shame and begging to be forgiven for forgetting who and what we are.

Not that I favor the constant not-really-so-humbling- practice of constantly confessing loudly our sinful nature. I find that rather self-righteous actually. I see no need to heap ashes upon my head on a regular basis. My failures and limitations are known to God and to me, and in the quiet of my own heart these things are pondered deeply and acted upon appropriately. All else is for show it seems to me.

Today’s liturgy focuses on the famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. As we all know, the Pharisee was among his peers an object of piety, a stickler for the details of Jewish law, and always quick to call for perfect compliance in the strictest sense. The tax collector, was an outsider within his community, working for the Romans, taking his pay as a cut from the exorbitant tax bills of his fellow Jews. The more he got from them, the more he got. He was shunned and hated by all those who saw him coming.

The Pharisee enters the temple and begins reciting all his virtues–how he is superior to most of his fellow Jews, especially this lowly tax collector. He apparently thinks that God needs reminding and remind Him he does. On the other hand, the tax collector dares not even raise his eyes heavenward, so ashamed of his sinful nature is he. He begs for mercy.

No doubt the Pharisee, perhaps not with words, but in intent does not beg at all, but merely asks to be given his due, what he assumes is his (wealth, prestige, power) because he is who he is, a Pharisee.  The tax collector expects nothing, but he trusts that this God of love will consider his plea.

We are led to recall the first reading from Sirach:

The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
The one who serves God willingly is heard;
his petition reaches the heavens.
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay. (Sir 35: 12-14, 16-18)

Can we relate?

If there was ever a story to point out what Pharisees might appear like today it is this story:

A server at a popular Italian eatery in Kansas was shocked to find that customers had left behind an anti-gay message on their bill in lieu of a tip.

“Thank you for your service, it was excellent,” the customers had written. “That being said, we cannot in good conscience tip you, for your homosexual lifestyle is an affront to GOD. Queers do not share in the wealth of GOD, and you will not share in ours.

The customers continued: “We hope you will see the tip your fag choices made you lose out on, and plan accordingly. It is never too late for GOD’S love, but none shall be spared for fags. May GOD have mercy on you.”

No doubt any decent person finds this type of thing utterly shocking. One can easily see the self-righteous arrogance of the writer. So very sure they are right. So very sure they know the mind of God. So very sure they will be properly rewarded for their public chastisement of the young waiter. The slurs make it clear that there is no human love offered, but merely condemnation.

Good people of faith will of course be horrified and condemn this behavior for what it is, an utterly misguided reading of scripture, a failure to recognize the over-riding directive of love that we are all to obey first and foremost, and a blatant exhibition of raw bigotry.

Others will condemn the words used, but claim that the action was still appropriate because they too are sure they understand the bible correctly.

Some few others will remind us that it is our “job” to advise the sinful of their sins, since they may be somehow “unaware”. Christian duty is their cry.

People of no faith will nod their heads and once again point out that this is what “religion gets you”. If there is anything good in religions of any kind, it has long been lost to powerful interests within and their acceptance of “rules” that on their face are unfair, unjust, ugly, bigoted. No God who would create such a rule, they argue, is a God worth worshiping or following.

As I remain separated from my Church, I watch as it struggles with these issues. Pope Francis signals that at the very least, our rhetoric has been ugly and off-putting. It does no good to welcome with the one hand while the other is demanding that to be a member in good standing, one must cease and desist being who you are. There is no welcoming in this. There is only some sick pathetic attempt to portray something one is not.

One wonders how the patron at the restaurant learned such ugliness. Jesus certainly modeled no such behavior. The companies like Hobby Lobby who are suing the government in order not to be required to provide health insurance to their employees that includes coverage of birth control and other reproductive assistance is another example. Where does Jesus model this sort of “my way or the highway” approach. Did he not uphold the Samaritans on many occasions–a sect reviled by ordinary Jews.

If one believes that this is from God, then surely one must be horrifically wrong, for this is not love, this is not compassion, nor is it forgiveness, welcoming, community, support, loving kindness. There is nothing good here at all. There is only hatred, fear, and self-righteousness, that suggests that in finding you lesser I am somehow better.

And this cannot be so.

This cannot be God.

 

Trying to Understand You

shoesIn reading Luke this week, I find Jesus’ missing a bigger issue.

Yeah, I know, what chutzpah!

Jesus tells us on the one hand to be humble lest we be embarrassed by being taken down a peg or two if someone more illustrious shows up. And then he pretty much trashes that whole idea, but telling us that, we should avoid the whole patron/client thing of his time, and be really radical and invite only the poor, the forgotten, and the rejected of society to our banquets. God will repay us for that–we repay each other with the former.

Jesus says that we do this because “they can’t repay the debt”–the poor. And so, I assume that means that our largess in giving this big food binge is truly a giving.

Ask anyone who gives of their time at any sort of aid organization. They will tell you that they “receive much more than they give”. This always seems a problem from my point of view. If I am getting more than I give, then I’m getting my debt repaid quite well aren’t I? And it doesn’t matter whether I am getting repaid by all those who see me and think I’m something else for being so giving, or whether I’m getting my reward from God. I’m “buying” something in either case, am I not?

I work at a food pantry once a week for a couple of hours. I work in the back with the food. I notice that when I leave the facility, those who have come there to get food tend to not want to engage with me. They don’t look my way, they often don’t respond to a hello. I don’t engage with them inside the facility because I don’t do “that part”. I know there is a lot of filling out of forms and questions.  I’m sure it’s not pleasant to be questioned like this, all to obtain a few bags of groceries once a month.

The point is, I’m always a bit shocked at this. I’m the benefactor come to help, aren’t I? What’s not to like?

Now, please understand I am not there for that, but I do admit it surprises one when people are sullen, look away, and aren’t beaming with happiness. After all, we are all beaming, smiling, and admiring each other in the back for our willingness to extend a helping hand. Oh, yeah, that’s that “I get more than I give” thing isn’t it? We feed off admiring each other for our goodness. Even the average “random act of kindness” involves SOMEBODY seeing what you did.

And that all just bothers me a lot. I don’t feel that I should take away more than I gave, or even break even.

And I realized that there is really no way around this dilemma, for there are precious few circumstances where one can give meaningfully and be totally anonymous too.

But there is one way we dive deeply into the issue.

And that is to try to immerse ourselves in what it must be like to be the one who “cannot repay the debt.”

Such a journey is fraught with danger. One of the worst things any of us can do is to think or say, “I know how you feel.” The reality is that we can’t. Even when we have “been there, done that” we can’t truly know how anyone else feels in the same circumstances since they come with their own sets of experiences and personality skills that are always going to be different from ours.

But we can try to put ourselves in their shoes. Think of any time when you were utterly in someone else’s hands or worse, you were simply in the hands of “facts” that you couldn’t know yet. Anyone who has waited for the week to transpire to learn the results of a medical test starts to see my point. When did you feel helpless? When you had no control of your immediate future?

Letting those feelings wash over you I suspect gives you a view of at least how it feels to be one of those who stands in long lines to receive something called “free.” Free food, medical care, housing, clothes. A whole statement comes in the bag of food. You are presumed to be lazy, incompetent, a failure in life, or some combination. That may be, and usually is, far, far from the truth. You have made poor decisions probably, but so have all of us. Most of us have had the family safety net to ensure that we didn’t have to go public with our limitations.

When I see a group of men standing around talking as I leave the pantry, I still smile and say hello, but I don’t seek a response now. I don’t wonder why they don’t answer. I just try to imagine how painful it is to need like this. And I can appreciate their desire to be anonymous in their need.

It may not be walking a mile in another’s shoes, for that is not really a possibility, but it is growing in empathy, and it cuts against judging. Those are both good things. It’s the best I can come up with so far.

Dealing with Wealth

Luke12v13to21_2013Money.

Some call it the root of all evil, parroting the bible verse. Some see it as the means to accomplish great things of value to all mankind. There is every position in between.

The first reading today from Ecclesiastes is the dilemma I often see for the atheist. Life is harsh. Life is all about working. And in the end, it is all for naught. One ends up leaving their property to people who don’t deserve it. What is the point? The writer of Ecclesiastes seems like someone in deep depression.

Paul, in Colossians points out that greed is one of those nasty “earthly” evils that we must turn from in our quest to live in the heavenly realm.

And Jesus reminds us that greed leads us to focus on that which at a moments notice can be taken from us. For it will do us no good in the end.

As the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you.

So how do we relate to wealth?

Jesus points to the answer surely in suggesting that hoarding wealth will not serve us at all. Yet much of what we do is just that. We think it’s good business to plow back profits “into the business”, growing it even larger. We are all concerned with the “bottom line”. We want to read our balance sheets as improving each and every year. We want that bank balance to grow.

Not all of this is bad of course. As much as we do know that our lives can be forfeit mere moments from now, we are obligated as good citizens and good family members to take care of ourselves in our older years. We invest, save, and plan for the days when we are not going to earn a salary any more.

Yet how much is too much?

Jesus’ parable is not just to suggest that greed is bad. He also speaks to what we do with our money. The rich farmer, rather than save up his grain to enhance his own wealth and perchance sell it at exorbitant rates in lean years?, should, after providing for the lean, offer the rest to those less fortunate.

Spread the wealth. Jesus asks, if something happens to you tonight, to whom will your wealth belong? A good question that takes us back to Qoheleth who moans that it will end up going to those who have not worked for it.

A ran into an interesting quote from Bill Gates, Sr., from something he wrote in Sojourners Magazine:

Society’s claim on individual accumulated wealth is … rooted in the recognition of society’s direct and indirect investment in the individual’s success. In other words, we didn’t get there on our own” (Jan-Feb, 2003)

In other words, it is the height of arrogance to make the claim that “I’m a rugged individual” and “I got where I am by hard work.” Surely these things may be true but they are hardly the entire story. People have died for your ability to set up a business and operate it in a manner that brings individual wealth. People have paid taxes so that you could enjoy free schooling. People have toiled in your factories because of their own pride in a job done well. People have protected your inventory because others raised them to be honest and fair.

Nobody gets there on their own.

Another point Jesus seems to make is that the uncertainty of our future should lead us to another thought.

We often put off charitable efforts until we “have more time.” We put off our families because the business needs our full attention. How many marriages suffer from the parent or parents who are too busy to get home for dinner or attend the soccer game? How many of us are too tired on Sunday to get dressed and attend our church? How many say we will get to mediation, that spiritual book, soon but just not now when we are so busy with LIFE?

What excuse will we use when the time comes and we may be asked to explain why we couldn’t be there for a friend in need, or spend that time in prayer? Will we say, “Gosh Lord, here are the numbers of my accounts. The money is all yours!”

The vanity is not the work. The vanity is not the desire for a nice home or a comfortable retirement.

The vanity is losing sight of all that is just as important, and that is not something to be put off until tomorrow, because that is a profound vanity. The vanity of thinking that we are in control. If we can see that God is in control, then we can order our lives accordingly.  We can prioritize more effectively when we step aside and get out of the way of our egos and recognize who is our guide and boss.

Wealth, work, and planning then fall into perspective. They are service to the kingdom, and nothing more. We work and accumulate to achieve much greater goods than our own small visions. We position ourselves to be of service in whatever manner is presented to us by a loving God.

Amen.

 

Things are Not Set in Stone

sodomThere is a tension that exists in our faith.

On the one hand, we are told that God has a plan. Often when tragedy strikes and we wonder at how this or that thing has befallen us, others are quick to point out “God works in mysterious ways” and the platitude that “we can’t know the full plan of God”.

This all leads to the conclusion that on the one hand it’s all ordained. Life is nothing more than our living out what has already been decided. Taken to its logical conclusion, we don’t have to feel responsible for anything we do, for “it’s all part of God’s plan”.

Yet we are told that we have free will.

And the two seem in utter conflict. Either we decide our own fate on a daily basis or we don’t. God announces his intent, and Abraham begins to dicker with God.  By the end of his discourse, Abraham has whittled down those to save Sodom to ten. In the end there are only four.  God has changed his mind.

These are amazing things in and of themselves. This God of ours doesn’t know everything! He can be reasoned with! He can be led to change his mind!

What kind of God is this?

It’s hard to know. We are not asked to dwell on those questions of course. We are rather to dwell on how wonderful it is that we have a God that we can talk to and we can “make our case to”. We have a God who responds to calls for justice, and if our cause is just, and if we make it fairly and honestly, we will be heard! Our God is not arbitrary nor capricious.

In the Gospel reading, we are told exactly how to go about that. Jesus gives us the Our Father prayer, the one perfect introduction to discourse with God. Not only that, we are told that far from being wrong, persistence is favored by God. As we read of Abraham’s continuing to push at God over Sodom, we winced, silently saying, “oh goodness Abraham, stop now. Don’t make God mad! It’s enough that you got him to twenty! Don’t push your luck!”

Yet Jesus tells us that God doesn’t get angry at our persistence, quite the contrary. He is impressed perhaps by our willingness to not give up. Will he repay our persistence with with a scorpion? No Jesus insists. The squeaky wheel gets the grease it calls out for.

By our persistence we show to God our commitment. And by our commitment, we show our sincerity. We aren’t just giving our weekly laundry list of desires. We mean it! Needless to say, this is not always enough. If our desires are still frivolous we may find an unhearing ear in God. Wish for a million dollars because you want to be rich, and I’m thinking you won’t get a very positive reception. Saint Monica, it is said, prayed for years for the conversion of her son Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine, by his own admissions, was not a poster child of piety. Yet, he became one of the churches most revered doctors. He speaks to many exactly because of his personal story of what God can do to change one’s life. He is proof of the efficacy of prayer.

It has always been the case that humans have struggled with “fate” versus human control. We have established elaborate priesthoods, investing these people with special abilities to talk to God on our behalf. Jesus brings this down to each of us, and says, no, you too, by your humble asking will be heard and answered. If you are sincere and persistent, God will hear you. He will answer you. If you think that you are not Abraham and will be ignored, you are simply wrong. God doesn’t define worthiness in that way. Humans do.

The door is only closed because we have failed to realize that God waits with even greater patience than we can ever exhibit in our waiting. He will wait infinitely for us to knock. Will you wait another moment?

Amen.

What is the Better Part?

marthaandmary-1The story of Martha and Mary is like an old friend. As women, sometimes we feel like Martha and sometimes Mary. What is there to tease from this periscope that hasn’t been said again and again?

I’m a liberation theology student and have read a fair number of learned tombs on the subject. One that I never got around to is the perhaps “bible” for women’s liberation theology, In Memory of Her, the groundbreaking work by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Dr. Fiorenza is no doubt the most famous of all women in the work of retrieving women’s voice in the early church.

I thought it might be useful to use that lens of women’s liberation theology to look at the story and see what insights one might gain.

As far as we know, all the books of the bible were written by men, men who lived in a time and place in which patriarchy was the norm. Roles were highly gendered, and sexes were often segregated in the home and in the synagogue. Women were lumped with children in their general irrelevancy in decision-making and in leadership.

Of course the role of Martha was the norm in the Palestine of Jesus’ time. Women were servers of men. They were in charge of the hearth. We see this in the initial story from Genesis wherein the strangers visit Abraham. The code of hospitality requires Abraham to make strangers comfortable, to feed and lodge them as needed. Note that Abraham doesn’t do the work himself, he orders his servant to slay the steer and prepare the meat while he tells Sarah to get busy making the bread. The man, Abraham of course entertains the guests while others do the work of hospitality.

Similarly Martha gets about the business of preparing food for Jesus and those of his followers who have arrived. Such a large entourage, no doubt there was much to be done. But Luke introduces something new here, Mary, who sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him. Luke’s readers or listeners surely would have seen nothing untoward in the Martha end of things, but they must have been taken aback by Mary’s unusual behavior.

Women in that time did not eat with men, and they surely didn’t sit in on men’s conversations. So Mary’s actions surely got everyone’s attention when the story was first heard. Martha’s actions are what would be expected as well. She is put out by having to do all the work herself.

Martha seeks assistance from a male in getting Mary back to her business of helping in the kitchen. This again might be the norm  since it would have been unusual for women to live alone (we believe they had a brother Lazarus  from the Gospel of John. Although John was written well after Luke’s account and it is never a good idea to conflate Gospels to “fill in the blanks”, it would be more likely that the women did not live alone than not). Yet Martha seeks out Jesus rather than the male of the household to make her complaints.

Jesus here is suggesting, that women should be part of the preaching and teaching diakonia. It was service of a different kind. Jesus, through Luke, announces that in this area, his followers are to be different as well. Women were not simply in the background, ducking in and out discretely as they tended to the food and drink of those men who were about the business of spreading the gospel. Women were to learn too, and thus to be ministers of the Word.

Luke’s framing of the story suggests that the early communities were conflicted on this issue of women serving in teaching, preaching and leadership. And Luke seems to come down kind of in the middle.

What is disturbing in the text is the manufactured fight between women. Surely diakonia involved  serving at table (eucharist), listening to the Word (and resultant preaching) and leadership within the community (Martha welcomes Jesus to her home). Yet Luke manages to split the combined diaconate and make Martha’s “part” of it lesser and somewhat derogatory by reference to the “better part” of Mary’s service. This must have echoed the fight going on within the church itself a the time of Luke’s writing.

As well, Luke makes Mary’s service a “listening” and inactive service. While to sit around at the feet of the rabbi was a full-interchange of back and forth between teacher and disciple, we see none of that in Luke. Again, even though the listening is more important that the diaconate of table service, it has been reduced to being “preached to” rather than to be educated to preach.

Thus we get the watered down vision that learning the word of God is more important than the normal business of everyday life. This is what is often preached in the pulpits of our churches. This is, I would suggest, superficial and really a misunderstanding of what is going on here. Luke has served to deflate the argument going on about what is “woman’s place” by turning the entire story to one that reflects nothing about the role of women at all, but merely suggests that listening to the word of God is always preferable to doing everyday things. In doing so, we miss the real and very shocking teaching that Jesus actually expressed.

Amen.

 

The Mother Lode of Teaching

faithinthealleyWhat riches we have today. One hardly knows where to begin. I could write an entire reflection on the beauty of the words attributed to Moses:

“For this command that I enjoin on you today
is not too mysterious and remote for you.
It is not up in the sky, that you should say,
‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us
and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’
Nor is it across the sea, that you should say,
‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us
and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’
No, it is something very near to you,
already in your mouths and in your hearts;
you have only to carry it out.”

God is as near as your very breath. You do not need degrees in theology or biblical studies to know this. You can feel it. As Moses said, it is already in your mouths and in your hearts. It is part of who we are. God’s love resides within us as the spark that ignites our life and sustains us until it pleases God to return us to Himself.

It is what moves us as our stomach tightens at the beauty of a sunrise, the sweet smell of a newborn, or the tender caress of a loved one. God sighs in the morning breeze and kisses our shoulders in the warming rays of sunlight. God is close and if we sit in the silence of his love, we KNOW both this and what it means to “carry it out”, being the human that we are called to be.

The parable of the good Samaritan brings us up sharply against our desire to somehow make “God’s will” hard to understand, and thus excusable when we fail. For we do desire that understanding God’s will be hard. We after all, are using so much of scripture to work out our salvation. We want to be different, apart from others who don’t care about “being saved.”

Look at the opening gambit by the scholar. What is he interested in?

What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Not what must I do to understand God’s will for me? What might I do to be a good person? What must I do to honor God? No, his concern is what must he do–what is the minimum requirement that I must fulfill to get where I want to go–my eternal salvation. It’s a “me” question.

Jesus simply confounds the scholar with his answer. The scholar must have been deeply pricked by the implications.

First the priest avoids the wounded man. The priest is following good “law”. He is following good religious law–avoid the unclean lest you have to interrupt your journey to return for purification. He didn’t have time, he had important “church” business to attend to.

How many times have you heard  remarks from alleged Christians who claim that the bible doesn’t “support” government aid to the poor, that it is the proper jurisdiction of   individuals–individuals like themselves who need and want to feel “good” and “righteous” through their largess? How many times have you heard them say that to support the homeless by feeding them only encourages them in their “laziness”?

We rely on out-of-context remarks from Paul suggesting that those who don’t work shouldn’t eat as justification for our “legalism”, and our refusal to help, much as the priest did in the parable.

Jesus DID NOT SAY, ask the fellow questions and first be satisfied that his behavior is not a ruse for free food and lodging. Jesus DID NOT SAY, ask at the innkeeper if the fellow is known as a vagrant, lazy and unwilling to work. Jesus DID NOT SAY, tell the innkeeper that once he is on his feet that he should work off his debt or be thrown out. Jesus DID NOT SAY, worry yourself sick wondering if you’ve been duped by a con artist out of a few dollars and a loaf of bread.

Jesus DID SAY to GO AND DO LIKEWISE, as the Samaritan had done.

I am continually confounded why those who claim that the Word of God is just that, the ACTUAL LITERAL WORD of God, and yet continually caveat, ignore, explain, and parse the meanings of this parable as well as the great commandment of Matthew 25: when you failed to do it for them, you failed to do it for me. The literalism screams at us in both these statements, yet somehow it is explained away.

I have to wonder why.

I can only come up with the fact that too too many of us supposed Christians are like the scholar–the poor (whom they claim Jesus admitted would always be with us) are there for the purpose of helping us “real Christians” work out our salvation. They are the fodder for our charity machine that spits out a “receipt” if we wish one, that can be taken to our graves to present to St. Peter as our proof that we were properly charitable.

We have our receipts, and we have taken our proper deductions from our tax obligations. We have done our duty, and so leave the rest of my money to me, government, for I plan on going to Disney world this year. After all, I’m entitled. I did my Christian duty and I have the receipts to prove it.

I bet that Samaritan fellow couldn’t wait to tell all his neighbors that he had worked out his salvation too on that road to Jericho that day. Yes I’m sure that’s what Jesus meant. I’m sure that’s what he really meant.

Amen.

More Questions

72If you are at all like me, you often have more questions than answers. I think that is a good thing. I’m always leery of anyone who seems to always have “the” answer.

Nothing in life is simple. I’m fairly sure at this point that it’s not meant to be. Puzzling seems to be a very human trait. We’re good at it.

So I confront the readings today and I find myself with more questions that answers.

Isaiah trumpets to the Hebrews who are returning from exile that Jerusalem awaits them. She awaits as a welcoming mother who will comfort in every way her children. She will care for their every want and need. We need only think of our own youth and the sweet comfort of a mother’s arms to soothe our bruised knees and our frightened minds at approaching thunder and lightning.

God, we understand, loves and cares for us in much the same way. God never is not Mother to us.

Paul tells us that he has died to all that is secular in the world. He lives in the Crucified Lord. Nothing else matters, not the Law certainly. Only this new person who has risen in the Risen Lord. No more will Paul concern himself with the mundane matters of earthly living.

Jesus speaks to his followers, selecting seventy-two to go in pairs to the towns he will later visit. They are in some sense to “prepare his way”. A whole series of instructions attach. They are confusing.

I struggle with what these readings are to mean to me.

In Paul I see a man, who by a revelation, has utterly turned about his life. He is poster child for the person who says A today and B tomorrow. The law enforcer now claims that the Law does not matter. He urges radical change, radical rethinking of what once was considered true. Are we to do the same? Are we to look at Church in some new ways? Are we to be thought blasphemer like Paul was?

Where is God in all this? How are we to know?

Paul seems to suggest that only by living utterly in the Cross can we be sure to make these radical changes rightly. Is that what he suggests?

And what of Jesus?

Why seventy-two?

Why in twos?

Why, why, why we ask.

What was it about these particular seventy-two? What of those not chosen? Why not the apostles? What made the seventy-two different? Better? Worse?

Jesus is at pains to make it clear that God is the actor, they merely the vehicle. Why should they greet no one along the way? Why burden only one household in the community for your entire stay? Why announce to the rejecting town that they are rejected? Is the point the teaching of the seventy-two or the work they will do on their travels? I wonder.

These questions puzzle me for nothing I read seems satisfying.

Surely there are answers to parts of the instructions. Jesus seems to want to make it clear that you are not the “main attraction” in these towns. No celebrations. No special foods. Go to them appearing as the poorest of the poor.

You are lambs. Not just sheep mind you, but lambs, the most vulnerable of the flock. You are laborers, God is the Master sending you. The message seems to be one of trust. Trust expressed in Isaiah and by Paul. Trust in God, all will be well.

Don’t trouble me or you with human things. Don’t worry about feeding yourselves, housing yourselves, petty squabbles about this or that. Trust.

That appears to be the only common thread I can see.

Or is it all about freedom from bondage? Are all these lessons in the freedom we find in Christ?

Yet the readings are rich in other things that call out for a deeper meaning.

I am unable to see it. And perhaps for me, that is my message today.

What am I blinded to by the logs that have created a log jam in my mind?

The readings seem to offer tantalizing ideas of greater and deeper truths.

It is a lot to ponder.

Do you have thoughts to offer?

I would be so pleased if you can give me an answer or two.

Freedom?

plow-580x250It’s ironic. We hear a lot of talk about freedom these days. We’re all in danger of losing it. If you believe the political right in this country. Those “freedoms” that are usually left unnamed. You know, “our” freedoms?

Of course “freedom” tends to come down to me doing what I want when I want to. And that so-called freedom ends up not being freedom but slavery. We become imprisoned in a world we create. We find ourselves wondering why we are not happy as we sit among our riches.

Jesus understood that. So did the writer of 1Kings, who wrote about the encounter between Elijah and Elisha. “Just let me kiss my mother and father goodbye!” Paul understood it when he wrote: “For freedom, Christ set us free!” We mistake freedom for all the stuff of life that prevents us from getting on about the business of actual freedom. We always have something to do first. And that leads to one more thing, and then another, and finally we are lamenting that we can’t wait for retirement so “we can spend more time doing charity work”.  I hate to tell you this, but at retirement you will find more reasons to put things off–for just a bit of course.

Elijah, Paul and Jesus are trying to save us from ourselves. Left to our own freedom, we will become mired in acquiring things, building “security” for the future, getting ourselves into the position we believe necessary from which we can then, “follow Jesus”. In a word, we will never get to it.

True freedom is not in getting our way with the world. It’s not in bank accounts or houses. Elisha demonstrates how well he gets the message, when he turns back not to kiss his parents goodbye, but rather to “burn his bridges”. He kills the oxen necessary to his very survival, cooks them, and hands out the meat to all who are hungry. He now has nothing.

Jesus told the rich man that he should go and sell everything he had and follow him in order to secure the kingdom.

When we hear those words, we blink, and we look with begging eyes to anyone to assure us that we aren’t supposed to take that literally are we?

And indeed it should not be taken literally. Civilization would come to a screeching halt (some might think it should), if we all simply walked away from home and kin and went off to preach to each other? We would soon come to the conclusion that those farms were useful since we all need to eat. Somebody needs to build and maintain transportation. Someone needs to build and maintain shelter.

Of course it can be literal. Elisha was “called”, as were Jesus’ disciples. As were and as are others. Sometimes God is insistent that a particular person has a particular job in this time and place to accomplish and the call is literal. Radically give up your life as you know it, and FOLLOW ME.

But I believe that that call is there for all of us in a real sense too. We are all being called to follow Christ into a new but very real freedom that severs the slavery aspect of our relationship to things and ways of being. It is the radical realignment of our relationship to this world that is being offered in these passages.

While we respond to deadlines and mortgage balances with renewed dedication to acquiring assets, we are enslaved by our possessions. They own us. We have no time, emotional or real, to address the real issues of the planet, the issues of the Kingdom that Jesus lovingly called us to.

These are not small requests, but the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Today our world spins more and more out of control. Our political leaders are invested in a game of their own, one that involves the pursuit of naked power and riches. Our business community, structured as it is, places almost an exclusive premium on the “bottom line”. Profit drives the industrial machines of the world.

Meanwhile people are hungry, without shelter. People are sick, without care. The planet groans under the massive assault of an indifferent populace which rapes its bounty and leaves sludge and barren useless land. People labor in real slavery, unable to make a decent wage, unable to care for themselves or their families.

We are too busy in our “freedom” to address anybody else’s problems. We are lost in our own slavery to “the good life” however defined. We are not free to follow Jesus, because we don’t have time. See me next week, year, decade, and maybe I can do something, but not now. The mortgage is due and I need to work another overtime shift to make it.

These things are real. I don’t minimize them. But the way out of this morass is not less attention to discipleship but more. Paul warned us:

But if you go on biting and devouring one another,
beware that you are not consumed by one another.

No one is free until all are free. To follow is not to mouth platitudes. It is to do the work. Love your neighbor as yourself IS the law as Paul stated.

We are not losing our freedoms. We have yet to gain our freedom.

Today’s readings point the way and make that path straight. Follow it.

Amen.

Who Am I?

whoamIMuch has been written about the passage in Luke wherein Jesus asks of his disciples: Who do you say that I am? Much will continue to be written about it no doubt. And the writings will be important and informative as they always are.

Who we view Christ as, will continue to be an important question, one that we must answer again and again as we move through this mortal life.

But I hazard the guess that our answer tells us far more. It  informs us significantly who we are. And I suggest that it is just as profitable that we ask this question of ourselves.

Who am I?

To say that Jesus is the Christ is to impart little real information. All believing Christians would say as much, yet one must admit that all believing Christians are not the same. What do we mean by that affirmation? If we mean that Jesus was the one sent by God to save us from ourselves, to provide the gateway to a place called heaven merely by affirming his correct appellation, then it says much about who WE are doesn’t it?

It suggests that our faith journey has been stalled at the most primitive and self-serving. Surely this is not what Jesus meant for us. Surely that is not the meaning of the what Luke records Him as having said:

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Those are powerful words. Worse, they are frightening. We must be willing to lose our lives in order to save it. And the ironic point of this is that while this might seem utterly self-serving, when we actively lose our lives we have lost any sense of saving ourselves at all. We have transcended that earthly way of being.

Losing our lives does not mean literally, it means to recognize and relinquish the daily investment in life that we as humans seem married to. The slogging it out in a world of like-minded individuals, each struggling to “make it” however defined. Each trying to secure their piece of the pie, getting their fair share, working for the “good life”, preparing for retirement, all the mess that we find part of life.

Letting go of that agenda, that mind-set is what is meant. Are you ready to live for others? Are you ready to spend your waking moments engaged in making the world a better place, not compelled by some belief that you are “working out your salvation” but simply motivated by love for humanity?  Are you uninterested in the newest model car, but finding “transportation” sufficient if it gets you where you need to be to help where that is needed? Are you unconcerned about the stock market and the condition of your portfolio on a daily basis, but trust that God will provide and keep your eyes on the tasks at hand?

If this is how you view Jesus as the Christ, then you have and are answering who you are.

It is a common enough question. It is all too often answered with the usual, spouse, parent, professional position response. We are those things surely, but we are something so much more. We are spiritual beings created to relate to our Creator. We are living out a human existence, but when that is over we shall return to our true existence.

If all that be true, then our time here as creature is purposely so. If life can be described by most as short and filled with a  fair amount of pain, then there must be something we are missing when we spend every waking moment worrying and fretting and plotting and scheming to get to some “place” of comfort and happiness. If that is who we are, then we are not in the Kingdom, we are running from it.

Jesus surely did not need to ask the question of Peter. He clearly knew from long hours, weeks and months of living intimately together, exactly what Peter thought of him. No, he asked Peter, as he asks us, in order to force us to confront ourselves and what we have made and are making of this precious time as human.

Who are you?

Amen.

 

This Is Love

MagdalenThe readings this week are amongst the richest of any we have I think. There are so many directions one can go.

In the first, from 2 Samuel, Nathan, who has, as prophet, anointed David as king,  finds his young king having committed great sin in the killing of Uriah in order to marry his wife Bathsheba. When David faces his sin, he laments, only to be told by Nathan, that his sin has already been forgiven by God.

In Galatians, Paul sets out what will become one of the major points of argument between Catholic and Protestant with the discussion of faith by works or by faith alone. Central to that discussion is the great love Jesus has for us, a love that is unwarranted given our sinful nature.

And then of course we have the great story in Luke of Mary, the sinful woman, who enters in upon a private dinner and becomes the subject of yet another lesson in love and forgiveness.

What is central to all, is that forgiveness is given first. Love follows.

As David comes to the awful realization of his sin, Nathan assures  him:

“The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin:
you shall not die.”

Similarly, Paul says:

I live by faith in the Son of God
who has loved me and given himself up for me.

Yet, it reaches it nadir in the in Luke:

Which of them will love him more?”
Simon said in reply,
“The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.”

Debt was a serious issue in Jesus’ time. In fact the poor often lived under crushing debt. Often the end of that was the loss of the land and the peasant and his family had to find other means to secure a living. In fact we know that Jesus’ father was a carpenter or stone worker as was Jesus, so in fact this may have happened to his family. In any case, it was a situation which would have been well understood among those that listened to Jesus’ parable.

To forgive debt, then, was a very great deal. It could and often would mean the very survival of a person or family. It was no small thing. No doubt such a person, forgiven of a significant debt would feel the deepest of gratitude and love to the one who had saved them from such a life of hardship and uncertainty.

It is this context through which we view Mary’s actions.

Scholars widely believe that this Mary was the great Magdalen, the one whom many  believe Jesus ultimately entrusted much of his teaching to, and who in a very real sense is a true apostle, one but barely acknowledged by the Church.

Mary bursts into the room, uninvited and proceeds to do some rather amazing things. First, she has entered a private dinner, not to serve, but to disrupt, something women were not to do in that culture. Further, she touches a man not her husband in the most intimate of ways, bathing his feet with her tears and kisses. She wipes them with her hair, obviously let down, another taboo in her culture. Finally she anoints him with a rich oil, pouring it over his head. In this way she acts as both prophet and priestess in anointing the king.

Simon, the Pharisee is shocked and taken aback. No doubt he is ready to call the guard and have her thrown violently into the street. Yet, of course this doesn’t happened since Jesus now uses the event as a teaching moment.

Jesus juxtaposes Mary’s treatment of him to that of Simon himself. For in failing to give him the appropriate welcome into his house, Simon has indeed shown his disrespect for Jesus and what he believes Jesus stands for. In fact Simon questions Jesus being a prophet, since he believes he was unaware of the sinful nature of the woman before him.

So Jesus explains that Mary has done for him what Simon was unwilling to do, give him the hospitality that Simon neglected.

And we learn something very important as well. And that something is that the love flows from the forgiveness already given.

This is a lesson that we miss, and translation is everything here. The NRSV translates the passage thusly:

So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven
because she has shown great love.

Yet, the American Bible translates thusly:

Her many sins have been forgiven, hence she has shown great love.

The difference is so important. For in the second, we see that it falls in line with the words given in both 2 Samuel and in Galatians.

Mary does not love Jesus in order for her sins to be forgiven. Mary loves Jesus because her sins were forgiven.

That is the great lesson to us. We do not love God in order to go to heaven, or in order to be lovable by God, we love God because God has loved us despite what most no human would do–our grievous sins for which we have as yet not been even repentant! To say nothing of making reparations for. This is LOVE! This is what makes Jesus so worthy of our deepest love and obedience. For he has loved us in spite of ourselves, when nobody would or perhaps should.

This is the lesson too of 2 Samuel, for Nathan assures David who has just realized his great sin, that it has already been forgiven. Of course Paul says essentially the same thing. Jesus died once and for all for all of our sins, present and future, and to all those born thereafter. We are loved in spite of what we have done or will do.

Such love is beyond the pale for most humans. It is “unconditioned”.

Imagine the likes of Mary, a woman who apparently was alone, perhaps shunned by all, suddenly aware that she is loved beyond measure simply because she exists! Is it any wonder that her tears “bathed” Jesus’ feet?

May we all answer the love of Christ with such an acclamation and proclamation as she.

Amen.

mary-washing-jesus-feetI am greatly indebted to the following for some ideas and facts regarding this reflection:

Tender Protection, by John Foley, S.J.

Move Over Pope Francis and Bring on FrancEs! by Mike Rivage-Seul

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