Blessed and Broken

Ash Wednesday 2017

This morning, still hoping to cobble together a new thought about the forty days ahead from my books and journals and half-written, reformulated iterations of Lenten wisdom, it occurred to me that I am attempting, inelegantly, to freshen up what has already been so perfectly delivered.

There are only a few days in the liturgical year when the readings never change. Ash Wednesday is one of them. Year after year the Prophet Joel tells us to rend our hearts and return to the Lord [Joel 2:12-18]. St. Paul exhorts the Corinthian community (and all contemporary Christians) to reconcile with God and not take our redemption through Christ in vain, [2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2] and Jesus instructs his followers on the right way to give alms, the purpose of prayer and fasting, and the Father’s awareness of it all.  [Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18]. (more…)

You have heard that it was said

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

I’m tired of feeling angry. Aren’t you?

I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of good reasons to be angry and I’m not diminishing the constructive value of anger. Without a doubt, healthy expressions of anger hold a valid place in the human experience.

In fact, it is due to our outrage over injustices perpetuated by oppressive regimes against men, women and children, and greed-driven exploitation of the Earth that we work tirelessly to secure human rights and to conserve our planet’s resources for future generations.

As a Christian—like members of many faith traditions—I believe that humans carry the divine imprint: that we are each created in the image of God.

This belief is foundational to our faith: we bear the presence of God. I become so angry when I hear the words and witness the actions of professed Christians who seem to have a selective understanding of this belief. My anger and frustration has compelled me to add my Christian voice to the historical conversation surrounding basic human rights.

Constructively channeled anger is the driver behind our progression towards a more just society, but anger that does nothing but foment more anger is deadly and frankly, I’m pretty tired of it.

I’m talking about an unattended-bonfire-in-a-forest-of-dead-trees-on-a-windy-day kind of anger. I’m talking about anger that feeds off fear and seeks to destroy what it doesn’t understand. I’m talking about anger that is capable of causing figurative and literal death.

Anger is the core of Jesus’ saying against killing, which we hear on the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A). It is the first of six sayings about conduct, also known as the antitheses, included in Matthew’s gospel account of the Sermon on the Mount.

Each saying begins with Jesus introducing a known and accepted teaching of the law, “You have heard it said…” which he then follows with “But I say to you…” and an expanded command that requires greater attention.

 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement.”  [MT  5:21-22a]

Yes, Jesus says, don’t physically kill each other. That’s pretty basic. But he adds that the kind of anger that leads to killing, that destroys relationships and causes deadly harm is to be avoided and reconciliation between peoples must always been sought.

Anger is growing, and it is wrapping its vines around every imaginable topic. While the vicious words exchanged online between people residing thousands of miles apart may not culminate in an actual murder, verbal expressions of hate wield the power to kill a person’s spirit and to shift the social dynamic away from the good.

We see this playing out in print and on television; we hear it coming from the mouths of our elected leaders. Virtual verbal combat also takes place where we live when we entertain private thoughts that diminish the dignity of another, even if we keep those thoughts to ourselves. We’re all guilty of it, sorry to say.

The other day— a particularly challenging media-saturated day—I watched a conversation between two strangers unfold into a hate-filled screed. Soon dozens upon dozens of people joined in the brawl. This kind of verbal pummeling between strangers is becoming commonplace all across the globe.

Many spirits were injured, if not slain, that day, including my own.

I took a step back and observed how anger was slowly sapping my spirit. A dark and brooding cynic with clouded vision was devouring my optimistic anything-is-possible, happy-go-lucky, creative self.

The constant reminder that the world is a mess is a self-fulfilling prophecy that like the sound of a dripping faucet can either drive us to madness or to a solution. Look, just because there is a 24/7/365 anger-inducing all-you-can-eat buffet of badness spread before us doesn’t mean we must partake in it. I think we forget sometimes that we have choices. I am choosing to push away from the hate buffet. (At least I’m trying to.)

In today’s first reading from Sirach (aka The Wisdom of Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus) the great sage touches upon the concept of free will—the power of choice.

“If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.” [SIR 15:15]

Ben Sira’s lesson concerns the daily choices people face and what guidance, if any, they use to make them. Isn’t it true that each day we have multiple opportunities to choose life-giving words and actions over the alternative?

The author of the much abbreviated Psalm[1] which we sing today represents sojourners like you and me who are immersed in the world, its challenges and its joys, and who strive to choose the good and who turn with hope to the Lord for guidance, strength, stamina, wisdom, and spiritual knowledge.

Our choices reflect how we view the world and all of its occupants. We mirror the divine image in the ways we treat loved ones as well as with strangers. What we put in our bodies, and what we feed our brains, what we purchase, and the ways we steward the Earth: these are not easy choices, but we put our hope in what is good and just.

Consider the death of a seed and all the secret happenings that occur beneath the soil before the first tender shoot works its way into the light. The constant shock and awe of anger and our increasingly ugly and disingenuous attempts to protect and conserve our illusions seems to want to trample any tendril of hope trying to break through. We must not allow this any longer.

While many of Jesus’ teachings were framed in eschatological (end times) language, his concern was with the way his followers interacted with one another here on earth, that they love one another as he loved them. Matthew is very clear that Jesus expected his teachings to be observed: do what the teacher says.

Hope is not a wish. It is an expression of confidence. I want to return to that hopeful side, and hold tight to the expectation that with God’s grace the goodness of humanity will prevail, and that we will continue to harness our fiery opposition to injustice and use it creatively to seek understanding, and quite literally save lives.

This is the only way for me, at least.

______________________

Readings for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, (A)

1st reading: SIR 15:15-20
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 119
2nd Reading: 1 COR 2:6-10
Gospel: MT 5:17-37

______________________________

[1] Psalm 119, with 176 verses, is the longest in the Book of Psalms. A poem of 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, was sung or recited in worship with the goal of encouraging the faithful to walk blamelessly through life, to turn to the Lord for refuge, guidance and strength and to seek with praise and thanksgiving a greater understanding of God’s ways as found in the law, testimony, precepts, statutes, commandments, judgements, and promises.

What actually will make America great again?

sad-rain

I have to forgive these people? I have to pray for them?  After what they have done?  So many dark thoughts. Not Christian thoughts at all. Thoughts I normally would reject with all of my might.

Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and prayer are repeated throughout the gospels and are frequent themes on this blog. But I was in a dark place that day. Even my dog knew it. She turned away from me when I picked up her leash. Instead of an exuberant response to her favorite activity she stood still, her long tail pointed down as I snapped on her harness. The date was 11/9, the day after the presidential election, but in some ways it felt like 9/11 to me.

Like many Americans, I felt my home was now located in a strange, inhospitable land. Throughout the day I experienced some of the fear, shock, insecurity, and disorientation that haunted me and others for many months after the events on that terrible September morning 15 years ago.

About mid-day I decided to deactivate my Facebook page. Earlier I huddled with my friends online, while others gloated and thumped their virtual chests as if the presidential election was part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The words “drain the swamp” and “how’s it feel to be a loser?” and an undisguised blood lust filled my news feed, because electoral victory was not enough.

Others offered snarky shoulder-shrugging comments about “change, finally” interspersed with suggestions that poor losers should get over themselves. There is nothing quite as menacing as a vindictive winner, and this, following the most hostile, hate-filled campaign on record threatens to be the kind of contest where every citizen will be the loser.

It is my firm belief that there is a life-giving aspect to every experience, no matter how dark, but hard as I tried I was too broken up to locate it. So, before disabling my Facebook account I reached out to my friends and asked them to share their wisdom on the subject.

The idea of forgiveness worked its way into my thoughts and later, umbrella in one hand, dog leash in the other I worked my way up the street and began my silent rant. Forgive? Forgive who? Doesn’t forgiveness first require someone asking for it? Does forgiveness even come into this conversation? And who should be forgiven? Forgive us Lord, for we know not what we do.

fall-sadnessI picked up the pace, walking faster and more fiercely than I ever had, slogging angrily through piles of leaves littering the sidewalk—unraked fiery gold and persimmon leaves, their wet fragrance rising towards me. I walked along streets shiny with rain and reflected red maples, my poor dog moving as fast as she could behind me. I was surrounded by the colors and scents of fall’s glory. Look up, look up. I saw it all and I didn’t care.

I was angry with God. I was angry with the church and the 51% of Catholics who from my point of view voted against the full teachings of Jesus Christ. I blamed the Bishops for their inconsistent teaching on Catholic social justice issues and their failure to demonstrate God’s mercy in this Jubilee year of Mercy. I blamed those who willfully ignore the words and example of pope Francis whose eyes are trained, as ours should be, on the Lord.

Pray for them.

I stormed past the grand home of a wealthy neighbor and whipped the bag of still warm dog poop at the political sign taunting me from their lawn. Maybe they will need to learn how to mow their own damn grass and clean their own damn house and take care of their own children after their help is deported.

Sigh. Oh Susan.

Oh God. 

Remember, I never claimed to be The Good Disciple. I only strive to be.

The heaviness in my chest slowed my gait, and the sky opened with my tears which stung as a reminder of their source—the perception that The United States’ slow but steady progress towards a more inclusive and just society had just been halted.

I didn’t want to pray for these people, but I did go back and retrieve the bag of dog poop from their lawn. And as I stood up to continue walking home in the receding daylight and porch lights began their timed announcement of the days end, I became aware of the silence. No cars, no planes, no dogs barking, just the patter of the rain, my dog’s nails tapping on the pavement, and my sniffing. I offered a prayer for healing and asked for forgiveness. We are all mourning our country in some way. Forgive us Father; we know not what we do.

What is life-giving about this experience and other similar situations throughout the world? Dear readers, it emerges from the fact that this cuts us so deeply. We mourn our broken union. But our progress towards a more inclusive and just society has not been halted, we just have to work harder at it. We need to insist on being community with one another, to console and listen and work to build bridges across our painful divides.

The life-giving element—what actually will make America great again— is our collective agreement to act on behalf of one another because we are human beings. We know what to do.

This is the wisdom of my friends who responded from both sides of the debate.

 “The America that we know and the rights of every community of Americans will remain sacrosanct. The darkness will lift – the weight of this enormous shock will lift and our faith will sustain us.”

“Activists will be born today.”

“But life-giving for me is the truth that God will use this experience to strengthen the resolve of those who stand for true social justice, across the board, from womb to tomb. Love always wins. Love always wins. Love always, always wins.”

“Love, reason, and compassion are the antidotes to the hatred of the campaign. We have to continue working for the common good.”

“People who normally would be passive will now be activists for justice. We need to be vigilant now more than ever.”

“Let’s reflect (St.) Paul’s words, “where abounds sin, over abounds grace” Rom 5:20… let’s be positive … and get involved, and claim “our” country back, with kindness, love, charity, mercy, all those Christian virtues that tell who we are!”

“Feeling despair does not help and does not change anything. Instead, continue to raise the important issues – whether that is through getting involved in politics or volunteering with an organization.”

What is your response?

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.

Go and do likewise, for as long as it takes

15th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Look what fear hath wrought
It left a mortal wound
What will become of us?
We hone our blades on denier’s strops
Fingers pointing, jabbing
Bleeding out
Oh we are so smart
No one asks “who is my neighbor?”

Our faces glow unnaturally
One fingered strategists
Judge, jury and executioners are we
Spreading the contagion
We picked up online
Swapping spit with flat screen pundits
Fear infects and deafens and errs
If only we would listen

What is that sound?
A still small voice.

Do something.
The Samaritan says

Do something now to stop the bleeding.
The voice of God urges,
And you will live

You know what to do
It is not so mysterious and remote
It is something very near to you
Already in your mouths and your hearts.
The Deuteronomist says

You have only to carry it out.

Go to the opposite side
Wherever it may be
Make haste to the injured ones
Speak words that heal
Tend to their wounds
Tend to them
For as long as it takes.

Now you, Go and do likewise.

—Susan Francesconi

Forgiveness: My Love Overflows

11th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

I’m an optimist; for me, the glass is nearly always full. But I have to say, look around. Do you see a lot of love happening in our world? I don’t mean love among our families and friends; I mean in our world, and by love I mean expressive, abundant, generous, nurturing and compassionate care between differing peoples and communities. Maybe a little?

How about forgiveness? You know, the kind that opens us and others to change, that makes it possible for good to knock out evil, that seeks peaceful resolutions, that reaches across differences in order to learn from disasters, and in the hardest cases when amends are not possible, the kind that wishes the ones who have harmed us no ill will. Well, do you?

More forgiveness = More Love

Consider the story of the sinful woman as told in Luke’s gospel [LK 7:36-8:3]. But first, allow me to disclose that just saying “the sinful woman” has presented an obstacle to my ability to write this reflection. We are each sinners with a past.

To identify a person with his or her past mistakes, no matter what they may be, is to strip them of the promise of human flourishing which we are each entitled to.

But you and I are guilty of this every single time we disparage or gossip about another person.

The ‘sinful’ woman in Luke’s gospel had no name; her entire being was reduced to the fact that she committed some act that was deemed sinful and irredeemable. For the remainder of her life she would be expected to carry that shameful burden like an unpayable debt.

That is, until she met Jesus.

Imagine the courage it took for her to enter the house of the Pharisee where Jesus was dining—a household where she knew she was judged as unclean.

But it was her faith in Jesus that moved her to place herself, silent but for her weeping, at Jesus’ feet where her sins dissolved into the salt of her tears. Her weeping, washing, wiping, kissing and anointing Jesus’ feet opened a floodgate of love and gratitude within her; the debt was forgiven. The woman’s life was restored. She was free. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” [LK 7:50]

Less Forgiveness = Less Love

But Simon the Pharisee, and, I suspect, the others reclining at the table, did not understand or appreciate the woman’s new lease on life. Where her heart was open and filled to overflowing, Simon’s remained closed and empty, even after Jesus tried to impart to him the meaning of forgiveness with the parable  of the two people whose debts were forgiven.

Simon seemed to be bound up in his belief that he was above sin. He locked himself in his self-made prison of righteousness, his mean little rule-based world. He and the others reclining at the table with Jesus simply could not comprehend that the woman’s abundant love was the sign of her forgiveness, of her be-Lovedness.

“The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” [LK 7:47]

Listen, forgiveness does not mean consequences magically disappear, they don’t. But forgiveness provides the generosity that a person needs to make amends. And from this freedom our love overflows.

It just makes sense, doesn’t it?

Today’s readings can be found here.

_____________________

NOTE: Luke’s placement of this gospel between two important stories about rejecting or accepting God’s invitation, adds more layers to the lesson on Love and Forgiveness. The first story includes Jesus’ pointed commentary on the lack of faith and obtuseness of those in the crowd who refused the baptism of John and therefore “rejected the plan of God for themselves.” [LK 7:30]. Jesus’ words indicate that even John, whom he said was the Prophet of whom Scripture spoke, was not accepted as God’s prophet because he did not look the part. In this commentary, we know Jesus is also speaking about his own rejection by the Pharisees. In the second story, the Parable of the Sower, Jesus acknowledged that only some of his followers possessed the faith to accept and act on God’s plan, and these ones were the good soil out of which the sower’s seed would produce “fruit a hundredfold.” [LK 8:8]

Return to Me with all your heart

4th Sunday of Lent (C)

You may see some flowers[1] in your church this weekend. Enjoy them while you can, because they’ll be gone again next week. The fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare Sunday, is a breather, so to speak, from the rigors of our Lenten fast. Laetare [ley-tahr-ee] is Latin for “Rejoice;” it’s a day of celebration. Hurrah, we’re halfway to Easter! The end, or to be more accurate, the beginning, is in sight!

If you were unaware of the liturgical significance of Laetare Sunday, the sight of fresh flowers on the altar after so many weeks of absence (or their replacement with overturned empty vessels) might feel a little bit like the stunt Old Man Winter often pulls on us Northerners, you know, slipping in a few warm, sunny days so all the people of the world (it seems) can step outside of their stale and germy houses to breathe some air that won’t freeze their faces off, only to resume business as usual the very next day with a record-breaking blizzard or arctic freeze. But in reality, bringing fresh flowers into the desert of our sanctuaries—like an early winter thaw—serves as an aperitif; a reminder of the ultimate Feast we will celebrate with the entire world on Easter.

Speaking of the world, it’s no coincidence that the theme of this weekend’s readings is the joy of Forgiveness and Reconciliation.

Forgiveness is hard work. Reconciliation is hard work. Heck, tolerance is hard work. Pride, legitimate differences, misunderstandings, selfishness, ancient grudges, deep hurts and resentment get in the way of making peace. It seems a particularly daunting task nowadays just to agree to find the common ground required for conciliatory talks to start. No one is listening; everyone is shouting.

Returning to God with all our hearts is hard work, too. Alice Camille writes, “The need to forgive so many wrongs in the world “as is” often reaches into the most private sanctuary of all: the relationship between us and our God.”[2] Relinquishing our self-power, recognizing our wrongs and vowing to do better, comprehending our true identity, our interconnectedness with all people and all of creation and our implicit responsibility to care for it all; it’s hard, hard work for human beings.

But Jesus teaches us that, like the son whose father never lost hope in his return [Lk 15:11-32], God is always ready, always waiting for our homecoming.

While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. [Lk 15:20b]

I so love to meditate on the image of our creator running to us, embracing us and kissing our faces. (For the record I generally do not anthropomorphize God, in that God is pure spirit, but I find comfort in this image. You may agree.)

The experience of resting in Wholeness is the joy of reconciliation. Whether our reunion is between humans, the earth and its creatures, or with our Creator, re-joining broken pieces is not something we should leave unfinished. But we resist.

Why should we care about reconciliation when it requires so much of us? Because being able to forgive one another, to reconcile ourselves with all of humanity and all of God’s creation is and will always be the greatest accomplishment our species is capable of doing.  You want to see a miracle? We have the power to bring about the reconciliation of the world!

Today is a day to rejoice and continue to work for reconciliation. We began Lent with these words, “Return to Me with all your heart,” [Joel 2:12]. Our faith exhorts us to forgive and ask forgiveness of our brother, our sister, our neighbor, our community, the world, and make amends; start fresh. We are to return to the earth; take off our shoes—it is Holy Ground—reduce our footprint, and steward, rather than exploit creation. Envision wholeness, and restore life to our empty, broken vessels. Return to the Lord, learn what is good, and be strengthened so that tomorrow we can to do it again.

Laetare!

[1] GIRM, 305.

[2] Alice Camille, Paul Boudreau, The Forgiveness Book. ACTA Publications, Skokie, IL, 2008. 16.