Today I Must Stay at Your House

31st Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Oh Zacchaeus! Who doesn’t love the story of the diminutive, status seeking, tree climbing tax collector [Luke 19:1-10], the greedy and sinful man whose curiosity about Jesus led to the cleansing of his name, his reconciliation with those he had cheated, and his restoration to the house of Abraham, and thereby to the household of God.

At its core, this is a story of salvation and communal reconciliation. In church-speak, salvation is preceded by conversion which follows a radical change of heart. In Zacchaeus’ case, his transformation began when he responded to Jesus’ command to “come down quickly” and found himself on the same ground as the people he had made a career of cheating.

The story of Zacchaeus is beloved because it is good news for all of us; at first blush it affirms that the sinner is not forever lost. But it also speaks to the joy of being identified by our name instead of by our sins. It invites us to enjoy the relief that comes from shedding social pretenses and in finding acceptance for who we are. It affirms our deepest desire, which is to belong, and to be home in community.

The meaning of the name Zacchaeus is “clean[1] but the occupation he chose was anything but. He was a tax collector, and not just any tax collector. Zacchaeus was the “chief, rich tax collector, the sinner supreme”[2] who likely enjoyed multiple streams of income working as a contracted government collections agent overseeing and amassing dishonest wealth from the equally fraudulent collections of those in his employ.

Still, Zaccheus wasn’t so far removed from the goings on in his town that he hadn’t heard about this man named Jesus who would soon be passing through. His curiosity was piqued and he determined to see for himself “who Jesus was” [Luke 19:3].

Bobbing and weaving in and out of the crowd that gathered along the roadside, the diminutive Zaccheus tried to catch a glimpse of Jesus, but the crowd was standing in his way. Being a clever man, Zacchaeus ran ahead of them and climbed up into a sycamore, a fruit-bearing tree. There, standing above everyone else where he was most comfortable, he had a clear view.

It’s a comedic, pathetic, and prophetic image: a man of power scrambling up a tree, peering between fig-laden branches to see what everyone else could plainly see. But then Jesus looked up and saw Zacchaeus there in his isolation, and he called him down—by name—plucked him like one of the ripe figs hanging from the sycamore’s branches.

“Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

The crowd was appalled. They grumbled. Not only did Jesus call on Zacchaeus, he announced he “must” stay at his house. Of all the choices Jesus could have made, it was this guy, the most despised man and the greatest sinner in town who Jesus decided to stay with.

But the crowds were always appalled weren’t they? Aren’t we still? Christians have a notoriously hard time doing more than waxing poetic about Jesus’ habit of socializing, dining, and preferring the company of sinners.

Let’s be clear, Jesus always goes to the house of the sinner. Sinners may be lost, but at least their eyes are open. The same can’t be said about the righteous.

All Jesus said was, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” and Zacchaeus’ eyes were opened.

And Jesus, by going to Zacchaeus, calling him by name, and remaining with him, recognized him for what he truly was—a child of God who got lost along the way.

Sigh. Aren’t we all?

Like Zacchaeus, you and I share a compelling need to be made “clean” and to be restored to right relationship with our families, friends, neighbors, the communities in which we live and work, and, with our Creator.

But true reconciliation requires humility and a willingness to meet one another on equal ground. We need to listen. In our homes, our churches, our communities, and in our country, and surely in the months to come we must devote ourselves to the difficult work of reconciliation, and be willing to see Jesus and hear him say, “__________, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

______________________________

[1] Robert J. Karris, O.F.M, The Gospel According to Luke, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Brown, Raymond Edward, Roland Edmund Murphy, and Joseph A. Fitzmyer (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990) 675-721, here 711.

[2] John O’Hanlon, “The story of Zacchaeus and the Lukan ethic,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 12 (July 1981) 2-26, here 9.

Hey! Corinthians of yesteryear and today

How about we
stop trying to
be the greatest.

How about we
not look out for number one.

How about we
stop building walls
around the fiction of our security.

How about we
stop making rivals out of
people who
look, think, act, believe
differently
than us.

How about we
stop comparing our stuff
with that of our neighbors.

(None of which, by the way, is ours to keep,
and all of which has no value at all
if it is not used to build a better world.)

How about we
recognize that we can’t survive
without each other.
Like the parts of a body.
Like the body of Christ.

—Susan Francesconi

“If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; If one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.”

—1 Cor 12:12-29

In the end, we are the same

All Saints and All Souls Days (B)

I recently had a conversation with a new friend about how many facial features and physical characteristics are shared by people of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern descent. My friend, who is a first generation American of Palestinian heritage, told me that he is often presumed to be Italian. I’m half-Italian but look more like an everything bagel, or better yet, a pizza with all the toppings. Hard to tell.

The conversation with my Palestinian-American friend led me to mention my interest in National Geographic Magazine’s “Genographic Project”, which has the fascinating end goal of identifying the geographic origins of human life. I really want to participate in this study. In exchange for a smear of saliva and $199 to cover the cost of the kit, (so worth it!) I can, according to the website, identify the migration paths that my ancestors followed “hundreds—even thousands—of years ago” and determine more accurately if I actually am the chopped salad of Italian/Danish/German/French/English/Russian heritage that my previous genealogical research (see below) revealed. My new, wise friend said, “In the end, we are the same.” Yes. Yes, we are.

This Sunday, November 1, we honor in a special way every known and unknown Saint, and on Monday, November 2, we honor our deceased family members and friends. All Saints and All Souls. As baptized Christians we are called to be the former; as human beings we can’t avoid becoming the latter. In the end, we are the same. Last year for All Soul’s day I wrote about the discovery I made doing my family history. I have chosen to re-post it because it speaks to that human interconnection which my friend named.

A Soul’s Legacy (first published Nov 1, 2014 and worth re-reading Nov 1, 2015)

Early in my marriage, when my husband was in law school, I decided to trace my family history. Stories about stout-hearted immigrant ancestors who scraped together the fare for passage, and willingly left their families and everything they knew for what they hoped was a better life used to break my heart. But those stories also inspired me. These were sturdy and brave souls; braced for whatever awaited them on the distant shore. I felt compelled to know them better because I shared some of those traits.

c1848-ottocatherinekidsraus_cmyk

My great grandparents and their children. My grandfather is seated on the right.

At that time there were no online immigration records. Research involved letter writing, contacting distant relatives for copies of pictures, marriage licenses, birth certificates, and the hand written details inside the old family bible. It included working with translators who could communicate with village churches in the old country, and countless Saturdays spent in the New York Public Library combing through rolls of microfilm for census records, city directories, and vital records. It involved studying maps and taking road trips. It was a treasure hunt that led me to an amazing discovery.

My research began with my four grandparents, which turned into sixteen extended families. On and on it went. Through the process of collecting and weaving bits of data into family stories I actually developed a relationship with my ancestors. I felt I knew them somehow, and I did.

Incredibly, I was able to piece together vignettes of life through historical records: addresses and occupations, the age and number of children, whether they rented or owned, if they lived in a flat, over a store, with other relatives or took in boarders, and whether they had received their sacraments. All of these things plus what was happening locally and globally helped me “know” them.

For most, life was difficult. Many were poor. I located news clippings and obituaries for children hit by a streetcar, or runaway horse, or who succumbed to an illness that is no longer a threat. I learned about their neighbors and what part of town they lived in, and if they were active members of their church or community.

426ec-coletta

My great-aunt on her Confirmation day.

In addition to facts, my research generated questions that had no answers, like how they spent their day, if they did acts of charity, who were the silent saints among them, and who might have been affected by a simple kindness, or a friendship between neighbors that changed a life for the better.

I discovered a profound level of human connection that revealed our divine union with God. I realized what I was doing was in fact honoring the lives of those who had passed, and ultimately honoring God, of whose great plan they were a part. Were it not for this divine union we would not exist. I honor them with my prayers in a special way on All Souls Day.

The legacy we leave begins with living in right relationship; it dwells deeply in the life of every single person with whom we share a moment, a kindness, or a generous act, as well as in the things we do to ensure a future for those souls who are with us and those yet to be born.

Happy All Saints and All Souls Day.

All In The Family

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

What does it mean to be joined by God to another? For that matter, what does it mean to be joined to God? Both of these difficult questions are at the heart of this weekend’s readings[1] which revolve around God’s plan for the life of the world: our origins, the union of marriage, openness to life, the Kingdom of God, the blessing of children and covenant fidelity to one another. In other words: family life.

Think of these readings as the meat in the sandwich between the events of last week’s wildly successful World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and the much anticipated 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family which opens today and continues through October 25. Francis’ many references to the importance of the family during his visit to the United States have given me much to ponder and these combined events are guaranteed to provide plenty to chew on over the next month or so.

I recently participated in an online conversation surrounding the Catholic Church’s focus on openness to life (which for many translates solely to its opposition to artificial birth control). I took issue with one non-Catholic, unmarried person who claimed this teaching was solely responsible for the overpopulation of the planet. Um, really? I was reminded of a time 25 years ago when I, very pregnant, stood in a crowd at a busy intersection in New York City, where I worked, and overheard an intended-to-be-overheard comment from a couple standing right next to me that it was supremely selfish to bring another child into the world. True story. My ears burned for the rest of the day. Actually, it still stings a bit. I feel sorry for people who think this way.

In his address to the joint meeting of Congress on September 24, Pope Francis said,

“How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without.” — [September 24, 2015, address to a joint meeting of the United States Congress]

I share Francis’ concern for the family. It troubles me deeply. But to be perfectly honest, I struggle with how to write about marriage and family because I know it is a source of pain for many. I believe strongly in marriage, the joy that children bring to the union, and the value healthy families bring to society. But I know marriage and children are not for everyone and I do not imply that they should be. My long and happy marriage is due to a combination of luck and hard work. We have been blessed to raise two healthy, well-adjusted adult daughters. I’m fully aware that this not the case for everyone. I have many dear friends who are deeply bruised by the experience of divorce and others who struggle to raise troubled children. I come from a large and loving family as does my husband. We are fortunate that both families have remained intact, despite the normal challenges which marriage and family life bring.

My family experience is not the same as yours, and yours is not the same as anyone else’s. It is wrong to compare them, but still, we do. The bottom line is that families come in many shapes, sizes, and circumstances.

The key is love.

Pope Francis affirmed this in his off-the-cuff speech on the importance of family which he delivered to the hundreds of thousands and people gathered in Philadelphia. Referring to God’s highest expression of love—the incarnation of Jesus—Francis said,

“So great was his love, that he began to walk with humanity, with his people, until the right moment came, and he made the highest expression of love – his own Son. And where did he send his son – to a palace? To a city? No. he sent him to a family. God sent him amid a family. And he could do this, because it was a family that had a truly open heart. The doors of their heart opened.” —[September 26, 2015, Pope Francis speech at the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia]

This morning I re-read this speech for the umpteenth time. With each reading I am struck anew by the simple clarity of this brief message which came from this pope’s heart. I read,

“All of the love that God has in himself, all the beauty that he has in himself, he gives it to the family. And the family is really family when it is able to open its arms and receive all that love.”

I think that pretty much sums up both what it means to be joined by God to another, and to be joined to God.

Open your arms, families of all shapes, sizes and circumstances, and let the love of God in.

Read a transcript of the Pope’s speech on the importance of family here: http://www.phillyvoice.com/transcript-pope-francis-festival-families-speech/

[1] [Gen 2:18-24, Heb 2:9-11; Mk 10:2-6]

Insiders, outsiders, and everyone in-between

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

It’s hard to believe, but the stigma of leprosy is still alive and well, and by that I do not refer to the unacceptable social alienation suffered by many of our brothers and sisters. I mean it literally. In a report dated January 22, 2015, Reuters news agency reveals the presence of discriminatory laws in around 20 countries where leprosy survivors’ rights to marry, work, study and travel are limited.

Although leprosy was once believed to be highly contagious, nowadays cases are quite rare and are easily treated with antibiotics. Still, being cured is apparently not enough; millions suffer a lifelong stigma rooted in antiquated laws and fears. In some countries entire families are regularly evicted from their neighborhoods and left to live a life of unbearable loneliness.

In Biblical times, any variety of dermatological conditions could be suspected as leprosy. Once spotted, a person afflicted with a “scab, pustule, or blotch” was obliged to meet with the priest whose positive diagnosis included no cure, only immediate isolation from the community. Of course, the reason for quarantine was to prevent the spread of the disease, particularly in public worship spaces. However, the outcome was the creation of colonies which separated the clean and the unclean who also could be understood as the whole and the broken, the insiders and the outsiders, the useful and the useless.

Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus removing barriers, bridging the gap between insiders and outsiders, returning broken people to wholeness, liberating the socially alienated and bringing people to a new understanding of what his Father’s kingdom was really about. Jesus is both the great emancipator and the great unifier. In her book of reflections on the lectionary, God’s Word is Alive, author Alice Camille writes “Jesus understood that people needed community more than they needed a cure.” She’s right. And while we might not be lepers, nor are we possessed, and we might not have a wilted hand or a sensory disability, many of us suffer from isolating social conditions. Loneliness, for example, is one which continues to magnify the distance between social insiders and outsiders.

A friend of mine who struggles with loneliness told me it reaches its peak when she is in a crowded place. There, she says, she is neither an insider nor an outsider because from her point of view those two labels still imply some kind of community to which she does not belong. When she shared with me her sense of Jesus in the midst of her desolation I suggested that perhaps her loneliness and desire to belong were a mirror of God’s longing for her and for the entire world. Think of this. Might the divine spark which dwells in each of us, and in whose image we were created, drive our desire to build meaningful and life-giving relationships? Yet, for countless unacceptable reasons a vast gap still exists between those who fit in and social outcasts. As an evangelizing people  we are compelled to seek the missing, widen our welcome, eliminate barriers, heal brokenness and loneliness, practice forgiveness, and work to unify God’s people in all that we do, just as Jesus did.

Today’s readings can be found here. 


http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/22/us-health-discrimination-leprosy-idUSKBN0KV27T2015012

Image © Depositphotos.com [Daniel Dunca]

Who’s in your circle?

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

It seems more now than ever people surround themselves solely with like-minded individuals and groups, and avoid social interaction with the rest.  It is nicer this way, some might say, we have more in common. The growing divide between opposing views and the avoidance of thoughtful discourse (which could lead to mutual respect) has nearly reached a societal impasse. Those people. Can’t stand them. And it is not only politics that divides us, the other day I read  comments on a nutrition blog which devolved into ad hominem attacks on those who voluntarily eliminated wheat and dairy from their diet. No wonder we distance ourselves from any situation that might lead to a confrontation. The truth is many people go to great lengths to steer clear of situations that challenge the security of the status quo. It can ruin a perfectly nice day.

Clearly this is not what Jesus would do. Take, for example, Jesus’ teaching about those with “unclean spirits” [MK 1:21-28]. Rather than steering clear Jesus dives right in. Jesus objected to Jewish purity laws which prescribed keeping one’s distance to avoid contamination and alienation from the community. For Jesus, purity laws were problematic in that they actually established a dwelling place for unclean spirits. And because Jesus is all about unity he risked his own contamination, approached the possessed man and called the evil out. Jesus carried his own purity into the situation in order to cleanse the other. So powerful was Jesus’ truth it expelled, but not without a fight, what separated the human person from the community. Like the stunned witnesses, Jesus shows us a different way to deal with people we would ordinarily avoid.

Today the words “unclean spirit” are tricky. Are we to understand this to mean literal possession by evil or should we consider the behavior of the biblical demoniac a form of mental illness? The latter calls us to compassion. Either way, the suffering human person is alienated from others. Might an unclean spirit also refer to one whose behavior is misguided and destructive to the self and others, and not grounded in the love that brings about creation and community? Can we, like Jesus, attempt to call out what dwells in the darkness by shining the light of truth on it? We must. If we continue to separate ourselves and keep our circles small, we do nothing to affect change in the world.

The tiniest spark of hope from one to another is capable of restoring wholeness, and is often the other’s only chance for survival. A open ear, a quiet mouth, a hand extended in compassion is the life-giving bridge between isolation and inclusion. This is challenging but necessary work.Open your circle and allow yourself to be the wick that carries the flame of Christ’s love into the world.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

A Soul’s Legacy

The Otto Raus familyEarly in my marriage, when my husband was in law school, I decided to trace my family history. Stories about stout-hearted immigrant ancestors who scraped together the fare for passage, and willingly left their families and everything they knew for what they hoped was a better life used to break my heart. But those stories also inspired me. These were sturdy and brave souls; braced for whatever awaited them on the distant shore. I felt compelled to know them better because I shared some of those traits.

At that time there were no online immigration records. Research involved letter writing, contacting distant relatives for copies of pictures, marriage licenses, birth certificates, and the hand written details inside the old family bible. It included working with translators who could communicate with village churches in the old country, and countless Saturdays spent in the New York Public Library combing through rolls of microfilm for census records, city directories, and vital records. It involved studying maps and taking road trips. It was a treasure hunt that led me to an amazing discovery.

My research began with my four grandparents, which turned into sixteen extended families. On and on it went. Through the process of collecting and weaving bits of data into family stories I actually developed a relationship with my ancestors. I felt I knew them somehow, and I did. Incredibly, I was able to piece together vignettes of life through historical records: addresses and occupations, the age and number of children, whether they rented or owned, if they lived in a flat, over a store, with other relatives or took in boarders, and whether they had received their sacraments. All of these things plus what was happening locally and globally helped me “know” them. For most, life was difficult. Many were poor. I located news clippings and obituaries for children hit by a streetcar, or runaway horse, or who succumbed to an illness that is no longer a threat. I learned about their neighbors and what part of town they lived in, and if they were active members of their church or community. In addition to facts, my research generated questions that had no answers, like how they spent their day, if they did acts of charity, who were the silent saints among them, and who might have been affected by a simple kindness, or a friendship between neighbors that changed a life for the better.

I discovered a profound level of human connection that revealed our divine union with God. I realized what I was doing was in fact honoring the lives of those who had passed, and ultimately honoring God, of whose great plan they were a part. Were it not for this divine union we would not exist. I honor them with my prayers in a special way on All Souls Day. Remember, the legacy we create begins with living in right relationship; it dwells deeply in the life of every single person with whom we share a moment, a kindness, or a generous act, as well as in the things we do to ensure a future for those souls who are with us and those yet to be born.

Happy All Souls Day.