How Can You Mean This?

MatthewdIt is claimed that Susan B. Anthony once said something like this: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”

I’ve noticed the same thing. Have you ever know anyone to say in their defense: “I myself wouldn’t have a problem with THAT, but the Bible says that God is against it, so I must follow God first.”

Meanwhile in Congress, the GOP is intent upon cutting SNAP by 40 BILLION dollars. All the while, a significant number of them are receiving PERSONALLY tens of millions of dollars in farm subsidies. You see, we must do this they claim, because these people who are receiving free food are lazy, they are becoming a “take” culture, while they themselves are simply being given some help, ironically in the food production arena, to keep America’s food shelves healthy and full.

Mathewwrong

And do you know what they claim is their moral justification for what they do? Why it is Paul’s statement in Thessalonians:

“In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.”

They do not of course answer the burning question of “where are the jobs”, a bellowing demand they make of this President every week, if not every day. Yet, someone people should starve because those who receive food assistance are undoubtedly unwilling to work. Work at what, they don’t say.

Yet of course all this is so much a lie. Forty-seven percent of all recipients are children under 18. Eight percent are seniors. Forty-one percent live in households where someone works full or part-time. Less than 10% of recipients receive any other type of assistance. Nobody speaks louder or more clear than the GOP when it comes to veterans. Yet over 900,000 veterans currently receive SNAP.

Those are the facts.

What of the moral argument?

It too is utter nonsense and bespeaks the usual literalist reading of scripture that these fundamentalists indulge in.

I have some personal experience here for I’ve talked with a number of people who I’ve known since childhood who tell me all about Paul’s statement in defense of their agreement with Republican goals to cut SNAP funding. They of course first start by telling me of their personal anecdotes, stories of acquaintances or relatives who get assistance and either brag or are “known” not to really need it. This is almost immediately followed by complaints that “I’m tired of working so hard for these freeloaders. My taxes are already through the roof because of Obama.” (Note that taxes in general have gone down under President Obama’s administration, but of course people believe what they want to perpetuate the myth they are living with.)

Then of course comes the scripture. “Even Paul said that those who do not work shall not eat” This is often followed by the incredulous statement that “Everyone knows that Jesus was against government!”

So there we have it. Jesus doesn’t like government and so as all  fundamentalists tell me, these things should be left up to the Church. Yes. Well, nothing is preventing the “Church” from taking on the job. Nothing has been preventing them from doing so for over two thousand years. Somehow or other, they haven’t gotten the job done. So please don’t tell me the Church should do it.

And the thing from Paul? Well, IF one were to actually read Paul with some understanding of what his letters are about, one might get a clue that this is not a statement that should EVER be taking literally.

Looking first at Paul’s overall theology, it is clear that he, like many others in the movement, expected the return of the Lord within their own lifetimes. Indeed, in his first letter to them, he calms them and reassures them that those “who are still alive for the Lord’s coming will not have any advantage over those who have fallen asleep.” (1Thess 4:15) Much of Paul’s teaching on marriage for instance is based on his believe that the Lord would return within most of their lifetimes. Thus he counsels that those who can maintain celibacy, should not marry. Those who find it difficult should marry rather than engage in promiscuity.

Secondly,  it is not completely accepted that 2Thessalonians, from which the “no work, no eat” comes from, was actually written by Paul. Be that as it may, Paul is writing again to Thessaloniki because a crisis has arisen. Indeed, many of Paul’s letters are in response to crisis within the believing community. New people sometimes arrive with new teachings, something teachers get off on tangents. In other words, Thessaloniki is in crisis.

The crisis is quite obvious and is stated in the letter itself: Someone is telling the people in the community that the day of the Lord’s arrival has actually come!

“. . . Please do not be too easily thrown into confusion or alarmed by any manifestation of the Spirit or any statement or any letter claiming to come from us, suggesting that the Day of the Lord has already arrived.”(2Thess 2:2)

This is what has caused the problem. People are in panic. There is conflict. As is the case in all the cities, the household churches are supported financially by the more wealthy members. It seems that some in the community are no longer working, and are looking for the Lord to appear, and simply living off the largess of the wealthier among them. Paul says this must stop. According to him, there are various things that must transpire before the Lord returns, and these have not occurred. Everyone is to return to normal activities. Return to calm. Go back to your jobs and your normal pursuits.

What is pathetic in this use of a single sentence out of context, is that even to the most limited of readers, the context should seem most clear. Paul is not out of the blue announcing that it is a teaching of Christ that that no one who fails to work shall not eat.

This flies in the face of Matthew 25 which says something quite different:

Mathew25aThis is the great teaching of Christ.

This is what needs be followed by all who would claim the name of Christian.

While we keep these writings about scripture and faith, we urge readers to contact their congress person and demand that the cuts in SNAP be restored.

Surely we are better than this.

Amen.

Matthewc

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.

 

Always in Hope and Prayer

Our_Mother_is_CryingAfter witnessing another round of Washington gridlock wherein all too many of the players jock only for their own personal best position, it is all too easy to lose hope.

All too easy to give up the fight when so many are aligned in an evil dance of pointing the finger at each other rather than at ourselves.

Our selfishness, our greed, our pride, our self-righteousness, our ambitions all serve to pit one against the other in an endless dance of death where neither can let go for fear of being dealt the final death-blow, and yet we slowly bleed  each other to death.

People are really suffering in our world, and people are really afraid. The two often don’t coincide. Those who live in fear, fear the one’s who are suffering and clutch all the more tightly those miserable things they have acquired, all the while attempting to build a fortress to contain these things from being taken.

Those who suffer do so in great silence, too weary from the struggle to just exist. The pain in their eyes echoes but one question: how can you let me die? Worse how can you let my innocent child die?

We argue over whether a human has the RIGHT to food, to shelter, to health care, as if it were a real question and not one created by forces that control the means of food, shelter and health and want only to exact a price for them in order to afford yet another jet, or condo, or island for their pleasure. It is all too awful at times, all to hard to fathom.

We were created in the image of God, yet we have distorted it by all the ugliness we continue to hold within us. Worse, we look at ourselves and see through this distortion our God become like us. How unnatural, how grotesque!

Yet there is this:

JUST ONE

I ask for just one miracle this weekend:
that I will no longer believe the impossible is.

That I will find the faith to believe
that liberation will come
for those who are imprisoned by their own
– or another’s –
fear and judgement.

That I will find the faith to believe
that the most intractable minds can be changed
– even my own.

That i will find the faith to believe
a different world will be born
from the empty hells of this one.

That I won’t stop living for the end
of all that would destroy us.

From Hold This Space

And from this praying upon unholy knees, we rise again to continue on, learning, teaching, reaching upward in love, in goodness, in equality, in justice, crying forth for a miracle of salvation for the human race.

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.

Letters to Pope Francis

LetterstoPopeFrancis-cover-224x359One might start with the premise that this book, written by a former priest and Dominican to the Roman Catholic Church’s new pope, Francis, and about what is wrong with the institutional church, would appeal only to Catholics. One would be wrong, quite simply.

Matthew Fox delves into the rot at the center of the Catholic Church with the precision of a surgeon, and cuts out the cancer with deft sure hands. Yet what he speaks of, with slight alteration can be laid at the doorstep of much of Christendom. If I were more familiar with other faith systems, no doubt his criticisms would also find purchase.

Fox starts with charging that the two previous papacies, that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were schismatic. He makes this claim since both quite obviously tried to roll back the progress of Vatican II, and as he rightly suggests, “a council takes precedence over papal directives.” In other words, to the degree that both worked to ignore or undue reforms of the Second Vatican Council, their work was illegal and should be ignored.

Fox goes on from there, and he leaves no area of the church’s dirty little secrets left unaired. From the utterly disgusting coverup by church hierarchy of the pedophilia scandal, to the Vatican bank, to the vile treatment of religious women under Benedict, they are all unmasked. Curia members buy “sainthood” and known fascists find canonization while true martyrs of the church such as Oscar Romero are “held up” due to false charges of Marxism.

Matthew Fox who is now deeply involved in his own spiritual enterprise of bringing people to the Cosmic Jesus, urges Pope Francis to return theology to true theologians, replace suspect organizations such as Opus Dei from their powerful positions, stop the war on women, end required celibacy, and the simple end of Catholic obsession with sexual matters. It is a call to recognize the basic intelligence of lay people. It is a recognition that if the Church is losing adherents at an astounding pace, it is largely because the church is failing to be relevant to today’s problems and the needs of its people.

With tenderness but with firmness, Fox employs the Pope’s own words and is relentless in drawing the parallel between today and the Pope’s chosen namesake, Francis of Assisi, who, Fox makes out the case, would dismiss the great wealth of the Vatican, converting it to food for the poor, and would speak out loudly and insistently on issues of income inequality, working conditions for workers, and our rape of the environment.

He offers real solutions, the obvious and those which deal more with the inner workings of the Vatican, a subject that many lay persons are unfamiliar with. Indeed, it is these revelations that so shake the reader. How could such evil and behavior be tolerated in the Church?

This is a call to justice. It is a call to the Pope and the Church to return to its beginnings. It is a call to return to Jesus. Relentlessly, Fox recounts that Jesus was about the poor. He was about justice. He was about speaking truth to power. He indicts the Church as becoming the very things that Jesus gave his life for, and that if we can drop the mantra of individual salvation and return to demands for justice, work for justice, this church and others like it can be saved.

This a call to recognize that religion is the not same thing as faith. Fox sees faith as alive and well, and it is religion that has lost its way. It has become part of the ruling portion of humanity. It no longer serves people. Moreover he makes it quite clear that the only way for religion to continue must come through a recognition that ecumenism is the solution. We must get off this crazy notion that there is only One way to salvation, which each and every (or most) faith traditions claiming that they are that ONE.

This is a disheartening book if you are a Catholic, but refreshing too, as we recognize that the movement to re-vision what it means to be “church” is being led, not by hierarchies within institutional structures, but among common every day people. They are the true leadership and those institutionalized “leaders” had best get on board, or be left behind to burnish their gold and buff their Prada slippers in empty cathedrals everywhere.

Read this. Read it and join the growing legions who seek Jesus and His Way, the one that was intended.

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.

 

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.

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.

Give Them Some Food Yourselves

breadIt is ironic in a sense that one of the greater divides between Catholic and Protestant is over the issue of the Eucharist. Here, Catholics are most literal, taking the “institution of the Eucharist” to be the actual eating of the blood and flesh of Christ, while most Protestants see it as a symbolic act of remembrance.

To be honest, the Protestants are closer to the mark exegetically. While Matthew relates the story of the Last Supper in a “bread = body” fashion, Luke and Paul frame it as a “remembrance”. Quite frankly it should not matter at all, since if we wish to talk about the mystery of Christ’s presence to us as Christians, the how is singularly not important.

What is important is the stage being set. The table was a place where differences were set aside, weapons left at the door, where people were in a sense forced to confront each others as equals–nourishing the body.

The history of table hospitality in the Middle East is well-known. In such a harsh environment, even enemies broke bread together as a means of survival. It was not all equality of course, there were heads of the tables often, and women and children were separated, eating after the men were through. Food was life at its most basic, and Jesus spared no opportunity to connect food and eating with teaching.

When people are chewing, they can listen.

I see the Eucharist as a time when for a few moments my thoughts are utterly aligned with my God. I choose to believe that God comes to me in some precious way through the bread and wine. I do not examine that process for the process doesn’t actually matter. Is this not why we pause, (those of us who do) at the beginning of a meal to silently or otherwise, give praise to God for what we are about to consume?  We have internalized the importance of meal, of table fellowship, even if that fellowship only includes ourselves and the Lord.

When Jesus has been teaching and the disciples urge him to send people away to find something to eat, he teaches an important lesson: give them some food yourselves. In this salient sentence, Jesus draws us together as community, making us each responsible for all, including feeding each other.

For in the feeding of others, we feed ourselves.

When the disciples answer Jesus’ directive, they say what we are wont to say: “Five loaves and two fishes are all we have.

We rebel. We start by turning inward, counting what we have, and finding we don’t have enough to share. We look about as dumb animals. What to do now?

Do with what you have! Amazing things happen when you just start doing, without fretting about how little you have.

Every revolution starts with the desire of one person to take one step in a new direction.

One in five humans is hungry in the world. One in five children in this country doesn’t get enough to eat. Our food banks are stretched to their limits every week. Men and women sit along our roadsides, along our city streets, hungry. Twenty-five percent of our veterans are homeless, living on the streets, unable to work and dependent upon soup kitchens, garbage receptacles, and the largess of passerby’s.

Food is life. All our actions regarding food can be and should be a Eucharistic event for us. The gardening we so love, the shopping and choosing of just the right melon, the careful preparation, presentation, all these are Eucharistic moments. We can treat these times as Holy deliberately and prayerfully, opening our hearts and minds to God’s presence.  Food can continue to teach us.

With each can of soup, we realize that it would feed another. Is it so much to ask that we save aside a few cans a week and once a month deliver them to a pantry? Is it too much to send a monthly check of a few dollars to your local mission or shelter?

And if I may ask you, please, please, when you do such things, hold them in your own heart. Your God knows, and that is all that need know. Only the Pharisees find the need to tell others of their giving. For no matter how much you give, others give more, and others are prevented from giving as much only because they have even less than you claim to have. You shame them, and yourself when you brag of your offerings.

Give them some food yourselves.

Amen.

 

 

What of This Spirit?

holyspiritIn John’s Gospel, we have the beautiful final discourses. John places Jesus’ last words before his arrest, where they can be seen as prophesies and promises and become all the more powerful to us.

Jesus, among other things, promises that the Holy Spirit of God will come after he has left them:

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you.

Surely this is not a new idea, for the Spirit of God appears as in the opening sentences of Genesis:

“In the beginning there was a formless void and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters … “

As Fr. Ron Rolheiser suggests, the Spirit is the very life force of the universe, breathing it into existence, and being the “glue” if you will, that animates and orchestrates it.

Jesus thus suggests that this Spirit of God, present since before the beginning, will be a personal presence in the lives of all who welcome it into their lives. The Spirit represents that personalized God who dwells intimately with His people.

The Father, so Jesus explains, sends His Spirit in Jesus’ name, as a sign to us that what we have learned from Jesus is in fact the Father’s will. We begin to see the interplay in this trinity of love, God, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit. All are one, one are all, each a part, yet not separate, each with its own duties, yet doing the will of all. This is mystery in its finest manifestation.

We can trust this Spirit as being of God, because Jesus has told us it can be trusted. It will teach us everything. It will remind us of what Jesus taught. Strange and opaque words are they not?

It is said by some that Vatican II showed the in-pouring of the Spirit in a most obvious way. A council that started in one direction, is captured by the Spirit, and sent on a new trajectory. Some are saying the same thing about the Pontificate of Francis.

The question becomes, will we open our minds and hearts to the working of the Spirit, confident that it can be trusted? As our dear friend Tim reminds us, much of the Hebrew Scriptures can be seen as a discourse on learning to trust this God that we have come to know. This becomes the ultimate in trust–“the spirit will teach you everything!”

But the ending statement is, I think most telling–“it will remind you of all that I have told you.”

This is the key to understanding I believe.

We are all of us, attempting to discern truth. We read the bible. We read learned and not so learned “experts”. We pray. We think. We ponder.

We all wish to believe that the Spirit guides our conclusions. We all wish to believe that we understand rightly. Some of us are very sure of that. Some of us are not at all sure. How can we be? The bible, (except for some few of us) remains a maddeningly enigmatic series of documents, difficult to define, difficult to unravel, seemingly contradictory in places and inexplicable in others. The more we study the more we realize that it is a collection of very different writings pointing in many different directions. As I said, it is only the most arrogant of persons who claims that it is obvious and clear.

Let us be honest. We are but mortals attempting to define that which is ineffable. We walk upon holy ground. We breath holy air. We are gifted with this life of short duration, a mere moment in the grand design. We are like an ant trying to discern the pattern in an area rug which we walk upon. We cannot see the expanse to make out the pattern.

Yet, we have this Spirit guiding us. And if we remember the words of Jesus, recorded in some fashion within the Gospels as they have come down to us–if we remember the ideas and the themes he brought to us, THEN these become the guide to how we might approach understanding “God’s Will”.

When our understanding is in alignment with what Jesus said, then we approach truth. When it does not, when we stretch and twist the Gospel stories to stand for things that can bear no relationship to Jesus’ world, or to the body of his teachings, then we are moving from truth and toward a self-centered non-truth that may  serve us but not the Gospel. If we must warp the Gospel to reach the place we want to go, we are most assuredly heading in the wrong direction.

We can learn “everything” from the Spirit when we use as our template the basic tenets of love, kindness, forgiveness, inclusiveness, justice, fairness, equality, patience, humility, and honesty. These are what the Master taught. We will act within the Spirit of God when we bring to every experience these qualities.

What Would Jesus Do?

The Spirit will tell you everything.

Amen.

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: