Listen, He’s talking to you

5th Sunday of Lent (A)

In a reflection on the Lazarus story, the late theologian, Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, wrote, “Resurrection (…) is not so much a theological problem as it is a religious experience. It is not an extravagant miracle happening out there; it means the transforming presence of Jesus within us.”[1]

Stuhlmueller does not spend much time discussing the veracity of the Lazarus story in this reflection; he does not go to lengths to affirm Jesus’ power to return life to his dead friend, as told in John’s gospel. He simply states “Jesus did raise Lazarus back to life.”[2] The Lazarus story is less about the facts and more about coming to believe in Jesus and our role in helping others come to believe. It is here that we experience resurrection.

For many, it is comforting to (more…)

Lambs Among Wolves

14th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

We often pray for God’s protection as if it was a temporary condition in need of regular renewal.

We are frightened, fully aware of our fragility and the evil of the world. We get hurt, physically and emotionally. Our scars are deep. We don’t trust. We are jittery, and for good reason. Naturally, in fearful times such as these many of us double up on our prayers for protection.

The seventy-two disciples in today’s gospel went out like “lambs among wolves” to proclaim the Kingdom of God in hostile territories. Yet they returned from their mission to Jesus rejoicing in their success, saying  “even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” [Luke 10:1-12, 17-20].

I wonder if we realize that we also have been given the power to do the same? Every day we are called to continue the Christian mission that the disciples handed down to us, to join ourselves to something bigger than ourselves, to work for the good of all of God’s creation, and to “tread upon the full force of the enemy.”

Just like the seventy-two disciples, and the communion of saints before us, we are protected. The power to oppose violence and proclaim the Kingdom of God is within us. Let’s not succumb to fear.  We aren’t wolf bait.

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Visit www.agnusday.org, the Lectionary comic strip, where each week Rick and Ted discuss one of the assigned readings from the Common Lectionary. http://www.agnusday.org/comics/185/luke-101-11-16-20-2007

Cartoon courtesy of © James Wetzstein, 2007

Why do some hear while others do not?

4th Sunday of Easter (C)

While preparing to write today’s reflection, I was struck for the seventh time this week (and the three-hundred-and sixty-fifth time in as many days) by the similarities between today’s church and the early church of the Acts of the Apostles. I am reminded of the theory of “God’s time”, which, for example, might say two-thousand and sixteen years is a nanosecond in God’s time.

Let’s try an experiment with today’s first reading from Acts 13. Enter the story with Paul and Barnabas as they go about their missionary activity. There they are, all fired up and filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking and urging and exciting the crowds with the story of Jesus. So compelling were they that the following week nearly everyone in the city came out to hear them preach. Naturally, not everyone was thrilled with Paul and Barnabas, their message about Jesus, or the throngs of people who came out to hear them, especially since they saw some of their neighbors in the crowd. They objected violently to the whole business and enlisted the help of their wealthy and powerful cohorts to force Paul and Barnabas out of the city. Undaunted, Paul and Barnabas seemed to shrug off the rejection and moved on to the next city to continue their mission.

Now, imagine that a Catholic man went to some small city near Rome and preached on a pivotal yet sparingly administered teaching of Jesus’. He excited and urged huge crowds of Catholics and people of goodwill into a deeper understanding of Jesus’ teaching. So popular and charismatic was this person that the city was filled with people from every corner of the world who hungered to hear his refreshing and restorative words. Almost immediately, some residents became alarmed and objected not only to what they were hearing but to the type of people who it attracted. These opponents contradicted the man, disrespected his wisdom and encouraged their friends from all over the world to do the same. Still, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the man spoke boldly and continued to guide his opponents to a deeper understanding, but their hostility continued to grow. Undaunted, Pope Francis returned his attention to applying Jesus’ mercy wherever he went.

Which leads to today’s very brief gospel from John 10:27-30. Why do some people hear and others do not? If Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” [John 10:14] that would mean that there are sheep who don’t know his voice and therefore do not follow him.

Returning to the story of our fledgling church from the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that in every flock there are some who hear and some who do not.

Organized religion has to take the blame, on occasion, for drowning out the sound of Jesus’ voice. Even if someone desires to hear, human and religious constructs have the capacity to thwart even the most sincere seeker from reaching the level of consciousness that allows him or her to hear Jesus’ voice.

On the other hand, organized religion can take the credit for the deposit of faith from Scripture and Tradition, and the copious writings of the great Theologians which have created a vast bank of spiritual experience to help attune us to the sound of Jesus’ voice.

What religion and theology provide is an opening through which we can learn about God through the wisdom, experience and insights of others. But it is only an opening; our ability to hear is not limited by it. The many names for Jesus (the Word, Savior, Lamb of God, Morning Star, Bread of Life, Good Shepherd, True Vine, and so on) provide an example of the various ways we can hear. If only we will listen.

I recently read that to ‘hear” Jesus’ voice—not only the universal truths of which he speaks, but Jesus’ voice—one must discern Jesus’ being, his BE-ing, grasp the nature of Jesus’ connection to God, and be able to name him, Son of God, for example.

This “hearing” is what defines the Christian profession of faith. To affirm Jesus as the I AM is to acknowledge that Jesus, the man, is one with God, not just an exceptionally enlightened Prophet with a profoundly rich prayer life and awesome leadership skills.

But there are many, many followers who love Jesus and want to emulate him, but who struggle with Jesus’ identity as the I AM. For many Christians, this is a cake walk. For others, it is difficult, mind-boggling, and perhaps will require a lifetime of following the Good Shepherd to grasp.

Can we avoid the gate and just climb over the fence to enter the fold?  Nope. But, would Jesus, who self-identified as the gate, stand in the way of a would-be follower? Does the gate close to one who lacks absolute certitude but desires to know Jesus? Does Jesus only know the sheep with perfect hearing?

Some would say yes, that this is what Jesus meant when he said “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” [John 10:14]. But the gospels also tell us that Jesus preferred to hang out with the sinners, probably because they were the ones with the better hearing.

Jesus talked a lot about ears and what people should do with them, but only Mark’s gospel includes a story about Jesus restoring a person’s hearing. [Mark 7:31-37].  My sense is that there were many sheep following the Good Shepherd who hung on his every word but who would not have passed the above three-prong spiritual hearing test, at least until after Jesus’ resurrection.

Jesus also said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” [John 10:16].

To put this verse in context, by “other sheep” Jesus was likely referring to the Gentiles, but, returning to our experiment at the start of this reflection we can see that the Gentiles were the ones to whom Paul and Barnabas redirected their missionary action, and that the one flock Pope Francis envisions will be identified by their emulation of Jesus’ mercy.

As for my defense of Pope Francis (who has perfect hearing, by the way), I don’t judge the sincerity of Christians who object to new understandings or expanded interpretations of church teachings and what it means to their practice of the faith, but when that objection seems to be the result of a failure to hear the voice of Jesus and it devolves into disrespect for our Pope, condemnation of others, and division within the church, I feel as if we have gone back to the days of Jesus, or even a few hundred years before since the Prophets also received the same fate.

Perhaps in the next nanosecond of God’s time, we will be able to hear.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

Jump in! The water is fine

3rd Sunday of Easter (C)

In the morning light, with a miraculous catch of fish hanging in a net off the right side of his boat, and after the beloved disciple spoke the words “It is the Lord,” Peter jumped into the sea.

Why did Peter jump into the sea? The text is concise. “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea.” [John 21:7b]

The story of the miraculous catch of fish is beloved by many. In Luke’s Gospel it occurs early in Jesus’ ministry [Luke 5:1–11], and in John’s Gospel, which is read on the Third Sunday of Easter (Year C) it takes place after Jesus’ resurrection [John 21:1-14]. Both readings are thick with symbolic imagery having to do with Peter’s response to Jesus’ call to follow him, but John’s version, located at the end of his gospel, allows readers to witness the post-resurrection dawning of Peter’s spiritual and ministerial maturity.

A close read of the gospel invites all followers of Jesus, leaders and disciples alike, to plumb the depths of their spiritual waters. The story has a strong message for the Christian church. It raises questions about how we “fish,” it tests our faith in the capacity of the net and ultimately beckons us to be caught up in it.

The action (because there is always action with Peter) begins with Peter’s decision—impulsive, of course—to go fishing, at night,[1] by himself. “I’m going fishing,” he says. Six other disciples decide to join him.

Wait, What? Read in the context of the timeline following the harrowing and glorious recent events of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and subsequent appearances to the disciples, one has to ask: What the heck were Peter and the others, including Thomas, of recent wound-probing fame [John 20:24-29], doing going fishing?[2]

As with all of Scripture, it is important to pay close attention to the way the story is told.

Peter and the others, fishing at night, failed to catch any fish. Morning followed. A man standing on the shoreline told the fishermen to cast their net a different way. They did what he said and were immediately overwhelmed with a super-abundant catch, far more than the seven of them could lift into their boat, and far more than they thought the net could hold. While they were all marveling over the bounty, one of the disciples, the beloved one, the spiritually astute one, recognized Jesus and said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” With that, Peter jumped into the sea.

Why did Peter jump into the sea? Maybe he jumped in so he could quickly wade to the shore to see Jesus, but the gospel doesn’t say that. Maybe he jumped in to hide his shame from Jesus because he didn’t recognize him, but the gospel it doesn’t say that either. All it says is that when Peter heard the beloved disciple’s words “It is the Lord,” the fisherman adjusted his garment and jumped into the sea. Into the water. With the fish.

If any of the disciples were going to jump in, it would be the impetuous, all-or-nothing Peter, whose passionate, sometimes faulty certitude  caused him to protest things he did not understand [John 13:4-8], whose braggadocio led him to make promises he could not keep [John 13:37], and whose misplaced zeal led him to cut off his enemy’s ear [John 18:10].

Peter’s spontaneous reaction to the beloved disciple’s recognition of Jesus in the miracle of the fish reminds me of how he responded to Jesus’ act of foot washing. “Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.” [John 13:8-9]

Examples of Peter’s impulsiveness populate the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and John. Although we shake our heads, we should also understand that these represent Peter’s sincere intentions, his deep desire to get it right, and his efforts to understand his friend, Jesus, whom he loved. We are so much like Peter.

By jumping into the sea, the fisherman Peter joined the fish.

Moments before, when the disciples followed Jesus’ instruction and cast their net a different way, it became so heavy with fish they could not haul it into their boat. Later, when Jesus asked them to bring some of the catch to add to the breakfast he was preparing for them, Peter was able to drag the net filled with one hundred and fifty-three large fish to the shore. In the very act of bringing the fish to Jesus, Peter brought himself, who like the untorn net was strong enough for the task.

And then “Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” Just like the last time they were together at the Sea of Tiberius,[3] Jesus fed his disciples with a miracle of abundance.

Religious leaders, lay ministers, and all disciples can learn much about humility from Peter’s failed attempt to fish in the dark, to go it alone. From his act of jumping into the sea, we can examine our feelings about integration, detachment, control, equality, and of course, our baptism. Peter’s robust response to Jesus’ invitation to bring some “fish” to him is something we should all strive to emulate. Finally, I can’t think of a better analogy for the resilient, expansive, capacious fishing net than the merciful and welcoming church envisioned by Pope Francis in his recent document, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”)

In the presence of such great abundance we can all cry out “It is the Lord!”

Be caught in the net; be part of this beautiful, tangled and complicated mess that we call faith. Bring what dwells in the depth of your heart up into the light of Christ—the miracle of God’s abundance—Go ahead and jump in!

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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NOTES:

[1] Other than establishing the ego-driven motivation of the disciples (also known as going it alone without Jesus, and therefore, darkness), how might readers of John’s gospel have understood the disciples going fishing at night? For one, it was cooler at night than during the day. Also, larger fish that normally swim in deep water in the daytime come closer to the shore at night, so the fishermen don’t need to take the boat out as far to catch them.

[2] In Jesus-speak, of course, fishing refers to the missionary action of the church; the fisherman’s net represents the scope and unity of God’s church. This unity is threatened when human leaders forget whose net they hold and attempt to go it alone. As accurate and tidy as these interpretations are, they are mere aperitifs to the rich fare proffered in this passage.

[3] The Sea of Tiberius was the site of miracle of the loaves and fishes when Jesus’ fed his disciples and the crowd of 5,000 with five loaves and two fish [John 6:1-14].

Download the full text of Amoris Laetitia.

A summary of Amoris Laetitia, thanks to Salt & Light Media can be found here.

Read Fr. James Martin’s “Top Ten Takeaways from “Amoris Laetitia”

Love is greater than fear

love over fear

I can’t stop thinking about the community of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Their witness to the power of love overcoming fear has filled me with awe.

First, because to the great shame of our nation, and as recent events in other parts of the United States have shown, racism against Black Americans continues to rear its poisonous and malformed face in deadly ways. A fearful, self-protective stance would be the expected response, and yet, this is not what occured. Second,  in this beautiful witness to the power of love I perceive the transformative, life-giving movement of the Spirit of God actively mending their brokenness.

This community, victims of racial terrorism that took the lives of nine members of their congregation, has every reason to become fearful and guarded, angry and vengeful. The details of this story have probably been reported thousands of times since it happened on the evening of June 17, 2015, and they should continue to be repeated, talked about, reflected upon, and remembered. Six women and three men were murdered by white supremacist Dylann Roof, who just moments before opening fire on them had joined the small group for Bible study. Yet, days later at Roof’s hearing, we heard the victim’s family members speaking words of forgiveness to him, and offering prayers for his soul. At that point, my husband turned to me and suggested that the real story is not the one about Dylann Roof. Rather, the real story is the way members of this community have chosen to push back from violence in the most counter-cultural way. Instead of falling into the abyss of fear they seem to be rising up through the pain—indeed, an historic pain—as a new creation that is stronger, more loving, and clearly a reflection of the merciful and forgiving God whom they worship.

“I forgive you.” These words hold all the power. But the ability to forgive the cold-blooded murderer of a loved one is incomprehensible to many. Forgiveness takes time, and healing and courage, and usually requires some sense that the other party is remorseful. Some things, it would seem, simply cannot be forgiven. But the inability to forgive can also perpetuate a sense of powerlessness, of being held hostage by the past. Forgiveness is not forgetting. It is not done to relieve the other party. It does not signify coming to terms or pushing one’s suffering to the side. It does not mean the systemic causes leading to the injury escape without correction. In many cases, its strength emerges from the victim’s desire to be free from the prison of hate that caused the pain. Incomprehensible as it seems in cases like this, Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders, and Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of DePayne Middleton-Doctor tell us it is possible to forgive. Unburdened, the one who forgives takes on the healing power of love, which is the basis of forgiveness.

The Christian spiritual practice of forgiveness is an expression of God’s love. I sense that for the members of Emanuel AME Church, forgiveness is as foundational a spiritual practice as regular Sunday worship; it nourishes their understanding of the God who saves and who is love. Further, this community’s witness to the power of love overcoming fear seems to point to a particular awareness of the Mystery of God which can be summed up in the words of Cardinal Walter Kasper, “Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain — wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work.” [Kasper, God of Jesus Christ (ch 2 n. 11)]

Because love is—and always be—greater than fear.

Why choose the dark, when we know the light?

4th Sunday of Lent (B)

One of the tasks on my husband’s to-do list prior to moving into our new home was to install dimmer switches throughout the house. This was a relatively large project for a lovely old place like ours which was originally built with multiple gaslights in every room. At some point in the home’s history the gaslights and chandeliers were replaced with electric fixtures and wall switches. Dimmers are awesome. Being able to control the light saves electricity and allows us to create a warm ambiance depending on the chosen level of brightness. (Also, I am told that people of a certain age believe they look a lot better when the lights are low.) But that’s not all, a dimmer does double duty by obscuring flaws such as chipped paint and cracked plaster—at least in the nighttime. Sadly, the gig is up by morning when the sun shines through the windows offering congratulations on our good taste in furnishings, and nagging reminding us of our neglect by announcing the location of every needed repair.

This light (pun intended) example is not very different from the way many of us live our lives, is it? Don’t we use a dimmer of sorts in our day-to-day dealings, living in the light when we are in right relationship, living in the shadows when we are not? We are skilled in deflecting responsibility and rather than change our ways we convince ourselves that a choice we continue to make is harmless, when in fact our actions create damaging ripples we aren’t aware of. Or we tolerate ideologies that we know are wrong and immoral, but the personal sacrifice that accompanies taking a stand is what really makes us uncomfortable. Even in the face of global consequences many of us refuse to take action because we “didn’t do it.” Not my trash. Not my fault. Not my problem. We furnish our darkness with denial.

“And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” [John 3:19-21]

The question is, why do we choose the dark, when we know the light? Our lives can be transformed; it can happen in an instant if we are willing to allow the light in. Still the darkness beckons our return. Sad.

How about creating a to-do list that includes a new lighting plan for life? As an evangelizing people, we might ask ourselves, “If everything in my life (in my family, in our society, in this organization) was forever cast in the light of Jesus, what would it look like?” What kinds of changes would you need to make to remain in the light?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

Stop the Violence!

2nd Sunday of Lent (B)

To say the story of Abraham and Isaac is difficult is a grave understatement. Abraham was a man whose longstanding personal relationship with Yahweh had developed over time through a series of tests and trials [see Genesis 12-22] and included a promise that he would father a great nation. Abraham had learned that Yahweh was trustworthy and kept promises; therefore he had no reason to doubt. But then he was asked to offer up his firstborn son to prove his worthiness. If a great nation was to come from this one man, his total commitment must be guaranteed. What better test  than to ask for what was most precious to him? Recall that in Abraham’s day human sacrifice was not uncommon. Also, recall that Abraham was prevented at the last minute from carrying out the sacrifice. He had passed the final test and became the father of the Hebrew nation.

Still, that happy ending does not change the fact the entire story line is unsettling and gruesome.  What kind of loving god would ask such a thing as a test of one’s faith? What if Abraham had objected? Maybe he did, but followed through nonetheless. We don’t know because the scripture does not tell us. Verses 3-8 which are omitted from today’s reading render an unemotional narrative of Abraham going through the motions: cutting the wood he would use, locating the place where the sacrifice would take place, arranging for there to be no witnesses, and carrying the fire and the knife that he would use to slaughter his son. Each step of the way the tension mounts, and Isaac’s innocent question about the animal they would sacrifice slowly reveals the horror of what is about to take place. The reader asks, “Is this really going to happen, is this what God wants?

Abraham’s anguish over what he thought he was being asked to do was not as important as his absolute knowledge that God is trustworthy. Surely he was confused and likely devastated by God’s request, but had personal knowledge of God’s love and faithfulness. This is the paradox of faith: the willingness to surrender what is most precious ultimately reveals the  bounty of what has been promised.

What does God expect from us? The the story is telling. At the very last minute Yahweh sends a messenger to stop Abraham, saying, “Do not lay your hand on that boy, do not do the least thing to him.” The message can be understood two ways. First, although we can’t fully understand God’s plan we need to trust that God truly has our best interests in mind. Our faith tells us this is true. Our commitment comes from our willingness to listen and  say “Yes, Lord” especially in times of extreme difficulty. Second, acts of violence are entirely in opposition to God’s plan for creation. God’s message is “Stop the violence!”  Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Synagogue explains: “In reading this story we recognize the critical lesson is that God does not want the death of human beings as a sign of faith and a sign of doing God’s will. Therefore the lesson for this time has got to be, we all have to come together to end war and stop the violence and stop the sacrifice and stop the killing.”

As an evangelizing people our witness to the Good News must reflect both of these points with a trusting commitment to God and an active commitment to peace.

ART: Section from Rembrandt’s The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God. 1635