Start with the Sand

Monday, The First Week of Advent

gobi-desert-sand

Is peace among nations possible? Given both the current state of this nation and the record of world history the probability seems bleak. Yet, every year, all around the world on the first weekday of the Advent season, Christians hear Isaiah’s prophecy of nations coming together in peace. And what does the prophet say will bring about this peace? It is the end of war.

Those who learn the ways of the Lord, Isaiah tells us, have no cause to “raise the sword against another” and those who seek to walk in the Lord’s path don’t need to “train for war again.” The prophet’s poetic imagery even suggests a post-war industry that would conserve resources and nourish its inhabitants:  the weapons of war and death will be transformed into agrarian tools such as plows and pruning hooks. [IS 2:1-5]

In his vision for the future of  Judah and Jerusalem, the prophet proclaimed that all nations will “stream towards” the Lord’s mountain; men and women would say to one another: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” [IS 2:3]

Can we imagine our world with its myriad cultures, political systems, economies, religions, and dangerous and hawkish leaders encouraging one another with sincerity to learn the Lord’s ways, and walk in the Lord’s paths? Can we envision the end of war and a society focused on feeding one another? Isaiah could. Jesus could.

Truth be told, there’s a miserable pessimist living rent-free in my brain and it’s crowding out my inner optimist. How can peace be possible if we can’t even accept the basic rights of others, much less talk to them without resorting to ad-hominem insults or “unfriending” them? I am guilty!

When it comes to matters of faith (after all, this is a blog about discipleship) it must be understood that the Lord’s generous and loving ways are universal, and the Lord’s path is abundant and open to all who seek to walk it. God is for everyone. No one faith tradition possesses God, and that is a fact that too many religious leaders, groups and individuals willfully distort for their own ends.

Speaking of universality and all nations, Jesus’ universal mission is hard to mistake in Matthew’s gospel for the first weekday of Advent. The Roman centurion, an outsider, recognized Jesus’ authority which led him to approach Jesus about his paralyzed and suffering servant. To reiterate, the centurion was an outsider; he was not one of Jesus’ followers, yet he saw what all the others failed to see. Jesus’ response to him reminds us of Isaiah’s vision of nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord: “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven.” [MT 8:5-11]

The nations that Isaiah envisioned streaming towards the mountain included men, women and children who belonged to the differing tribes of Israel. Each person turns to the other with encouragement as they climb the great mountain to learn the Lord’s ways and walk in the Lord’s paths. Today, we think of nations, cultures, and religions as solid units; we glom everyone together under a single heading and dismiss those with whom we disagree. I don’t know about you, but I for one, do not want to be pureed into any single group. I prefer salad.

I think this glomming of people is one of the errors underlying the question of why we can’t all just get along. We see groups rather than individual human beings. Birds of a feather may very well flock together, but that doesn’t make them one giant bird.

I am reminded of the well-known lesson first introduced by Steven R. Covey in 1989 in which he demonstrated the art of prioritization by fitting what appeared to be an impossible volume of sand, stones and rocks into a single bucket. He did so by attending to the rocks first and ending with the sand. The point of Covey’s “Big Rocks of Life” lesson is, of course, that all parts fit together when they are addressed in the order of importance. In the nearly three decades since its publication, Covey’s method continues to be popular among students and professionals interested in time management, rocks, stones, pebbles, and then if there’s any room left, the sand.

The problem is that it is the exact opposite of this model that is needed if we are ever to live peacefully.  “Rocks first” affects the way we treat one another. We see groups, not individuals; we see rocks, not sand. And because the sand is the lowest priority, it is neglected. This advent, lets put the rocks aside and start with the sand.

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For ideas on how to get to know the other over a meal, I present Elizabeth Lesser’s TED talk, “Take the Other to Lunch” https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_lesser_take_the_other_to_lunch

Also related to mealtime, see journalist David Brooks moving article entitled “The Power of a Dinner Table” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/opinion/the-power-of-a-dinner-table.html

If you live in Chicago, lucky you. Check out the Catholic Common Ground Initiative: http://www.ctu.lib.il.us/bernardin-center/catholic-common-ground-initiative

Maybe there is a Commonweal Local Community in your area, and if not, find out how you can start one. https://pages.commonwealmagazine.org/clc/

Readers of this blog with suggestions for how we can get to know one another better are invited to share their ideas in the comment area.

Give to The One Who Asks of You

7th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Yesterday, while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, I overheard the tsk tsk’ing of the couple ahead of me. It was wrong, I heard them say to each other, that ‘some people’ used their government benefits to buy expensive food. They turned to me, hoping for an affirmation to their audible grumbling about low-income people who “eat like kings”

Standing in front of them was a young mom with one toddler on her hip and another child by her side. She bought two half-gallons of organic whole milk, a container of organic yogurt, and a whole chicken, and she used food stamps to pay for them.

I mumbled something about her healthy food choices.

Two weeks ago we heard the words of the prophet Isaiah, who speaking for the Lord, made it clear that it is God’s will that we share what we have with one another. That we feed the hungry—not from our surplus or with our leftovers—but from the same table we share with our families.

“If you lavish your food on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; Then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom shall become like midday;” [IS 58:10]

Lavish” and “satisfy.” To go beyond the letter of the law. And then your gloom will lift. Now that is really something.

Today, on the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A), we hear Jesus continue his teaching on doing more than the law prescribes.

“Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. [MT 5:41]

The suggestion that we go the extra mile, that we do more than what is expected,  was met with the same resistance in Jesus’ day it is today.

The kind of stinginess expressed by the couple in the grocery store shrinks and darkens our world. Indeed it is a lack of mercy which emerges from a sense of entitlement and a fear of scarcity.

Conversely, it is when we give of ourselves freely and without resentment that we experience the miracle of God’s abundance  over and over again; the light rises, we feel restored, not depleted.

Jesus told his disciples, “give to the one who asks of you.” [MT 5:42]

I recently came across the following vignette from Leontius’ Life of St. John the Almsgiver, the biography of the Saint who was a widower, a father, and later the patriarch of Alexandra (c. 560-619). It is striking for its contemporary resonance and is worthy of our prayerful contemplation.

“While there was a crowd of refugees in the city, one of the strangers, noticing John’s remarkable sympathy, determined to test the blessed man. So he put on old clothes and approached him as he was on his way to visit the sick in the hospitals (for he did this two or three times a week) and said to him, “Have mercy on me for I have been a prisoner of war.”

John said to his purse-bearer, “Give him six nomismata.”

After the man had received these he went off, changed his clothes, met John again in another street, and falling at his feet said, “Have pity on me for I am in want.” The Patriarch again said to his purse-bearer, “Give him six nomismata.”

As he went away the purse-bearer whispered in the Patriarch’s ear, “By your prayers, master, this same man has had alms from you twice over!” But the Patriarch pretended not to understand.

Soon the man came again for the third time to ask for money and the attendant, carrying the gold, nudged the Patriarch to let him know that it was the same man, whereupon the truly merciful and beloved of God said, “Give him twelve nomismata, for perchance it is my Christ and He is here to test me.”

The season of Lent is around the corner. Ash Wednesday is March 1. Traditionally, during Lent our attention is drawn to serving the poor. God’s abundance, however, is not seasonal and like the example set by St. John the Almsgiver, we are expected share it freely at all times.

So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [MT 5:48]

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Readings for the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time, (A)

1st Reading: LV 19:1-2, 17-18
Responsorial Psalm:
PS 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13
2nd Reading: 1 COR 3:16-23
Gospel: 
MT 5:38-48

Comic courtesy of www.agnusday.org, the Lectionary comic strip, where each week Rick and Ted discuss one of the assigned readings from the Common Lectionary.

Click here to learn more about St. John the Almsgiver.

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.

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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

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[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 have we become?

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Yesterday I read the following statement made by Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, against President Trump’s move to close our borders to immigrants, refugees, and all who seek a better life in the United States.

Statement of Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R., On Wednesday’s Executive Actions on Immigration

January 27, 2017

I understand the desire for every American to be assured of safe borders and freedom from terrorism.  The federal government should continue a prudent policy aimed at protecting citizens.

I also understand and heed the call of God, who through Moses told the people of Israel: “You shall not oppress an alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9).  Jesus asks His disciples to go further, calling on us to recognize Him in the stranger: “Whatsoever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me” (Mt. 25:40).

Wednesday’s Executive Actions do not show the United States to be an open and welcoming nation.  They are the opposite of what it means to be an American.

Closing borders and building walls are not rational acts.  Mass detentions and wholesale deportation benefit no one; such inhuman policies destroy families and communities.

In fact, threatening the so-called “sanctuary cities” with the withdrawal of federal funding for vital services such as healthcare, education and transportation will not reduce immigration.  It only will harm all good people in those communities.

I am the grandson of immigrants and was raised in a multicultural neighborhood in southwest Detroit.  Throughout my life as a priest and bishop in the United States, I have lived and worked in communities that were enriched by people of many nationalities, languages and faiths.  Those communities were strong, hard-working, law-abiding, and filled with affection for this nation and its people.

Here in Newark, we are in the final steps of preparing to welcome 51 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  This is only the latest group of people whom Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese has helped to resettle during the past 40 years.  This current group of refugees has waited years for this moment and already has been cleared by the federal government.

They have complied with all of the stringent requirements of a vetting process that is coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security.  Catholic Charities, assisted by parishes and parishioners of the Archdiocese, will help them establish homes, jobs and new lives so that they can contribute positively to life in northern New Jersey.  When this group is settled, we hope to welcome others.

This nation has a long and rich history of welcoming those who have sought refuge because of oppression or fear of death.  The Acadians, French, Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Jews and Vietnamese are just a few of the many groups over the past 260 years whom we have welcomed and helped to find a better, safer life for themselves and their children in America.

Even when such groups were met by irrational fear, prejudice and persecution, the signature benevolence of the United States of American eventually triumphed.

That confident kindness is what has made, and will continue to make, America great.

http://www.rcan.org/statement-cardinal-joseph-w-tobin-cssr-wednesday%E2%80%99s-executive-actions-immigration

Then I read the astonishing comments from self-identified Catholics against the Cardinal, against Pope Francis, and against anyone else who objects to the Trump administration’s inhumane agenda, which frankly is directed against people of color.

These so-called Catholics will stand in their pews this weekend professing their faith in the One who dwells within the stranger. They will hear the words of the prophet Zephaniah: “seek justice, seek humility; perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of the LORD’s anger”[Zeph 2:3]. They will sing the words of the psalmist, “The Lord keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets captives free.” [Psalm 146]. They will listen to admonishment of St. Paul against Christians who boast of their righteousness [1 Cor 1:26-31], and hear Jesus’ words honoring the defenseless among us and insisting that we do the same, regardless of the consequences [Matthew 5:1-12]. They will give each other the kiss of peace, and then they will place the Eucharist in their acid mouths and return to their homes to cheer an agenda that is the antithesis of everything Jesus represents.

Some serious soul searching is called for. What have we become?

I also have to work hard to resist rising feelings of animosity against my fellow Christians who wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he knocked on their door and yet dare to use, for example, an image of the Sacred Heart or Blessed Mother or Michael the Archangel or St. Therese the Little Flower as their profile picture and proceed to spew politically motivated venom on good shepherds who speak the truth. Professed Christians who feel justified spitting on Jesus’ face with their vitriol. Jesus wept. So do I. So should you.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”

MT 5:1-12

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Readings for the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

1st reading: ZEP 2:3; 3:12-13
Responsorial Psalm: PS 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10
2nd Reading: 1 COR 1:26-31 
Gospel: MT 5:1-12A

Talkin’ bout a revolution

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

What would it take for you to leave your nets, your boat, and your father as the disciples did?

He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. [MT 4:19-20]

He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him. [MT 4:21-22]

(Long pause while we shift uneasily in our seats and decide whether or not to continue reading)

Few conversations cause more discomfort than those that begin with unsolicited advice about changing the direction of our lives. For one, it makes us feel defensive. It also threatens our sense of responsibility. It would be ridiculous, we protest, to forsake our stability (even if it is wobbly), and relinquish our control (even if that is an illusion).

Yes, for the majority of us, it would be irresponsible to quit our jobs, abandon our homes and ditch our families. But, rather than counting off the reasons why it would simply be unfathomable in the 21st century to do as the disciples did, let’s widen the aperture of our lens so we can see the bigger picture.

But just to be clear, most of us have a lot more freedom to roam than the people living in Jesus’ day. It is not unusual for our children to head off to college in another part of the country and settle in cities thousands of miles away from home and form tight bonds with “surrogate” families. In contrast, given the centrality of kinship in Jesus’ day,[1] leaving one’s family and seeking a new way of life or livelihood would have been deemed abnormal.[2] But the first disciples dropped everything to follow Jesus.

The immediate response of Andrew, Peter, James and John to Jesus’ invitation provides valuable insight to 21st-century disciples: Jesus did not work alone: then or now.

Don’t you know? They’re talkin’ bout a revolution

Matthew’s gospel tells us “all of Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan” went to John the Baptist to be baptized. [MT 3:5-6]. Clearly, a movement was afoot. No doubt King Herod and the religious authorities were less appreciative of the odd and prickly, anti-authoritarian preacher and despised him for calling them out for their sinful lifestyle and religious hypocrisy.

Some suggest that the gospel writer exaggerated John the Baptist’s popularity by saying ALL of Judea and THE WHOLE REGION of Jordan came for baptism. The point is that huge numbers of Jewish citizens experienced a conversion—a change of heart—which may not have jibed with that of Herod and the religious leaders. They wanted him gone.

So they did what institutions threatened by grassroots activists do, and continue to do today—they tried to shut him down. They arrested John the Baptist and eventually killed him. But they did not know it was too late to stop the revolution. That caravan had already left the stable, so to speak. John paved the way, and Jesus took the lead (or lede since it’s his story, after all).

So, here we have Jesus receiving the news that the authorities had arrested John the Baptist. Jesus lived in this culture; he knew why John was silenced. But Jesus fearlessly picked up where John left off, in Galilee, walking the radical path the Baptist prepared for him—preaching the same message in the same kingdom ruled by the same king who had just imprisoned John.

Anyone else would find a safer place to preach. Not Jesus. Matthew tells us Jesus even used John’s same words “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” —except the future event to which John referred was now present in Jesus, the Autobasileia.[3]

Jesus was not the messenger, Jesus was the message.

Let’s take Jesus out of the blue sky, sunny day pasture with the rosy-cheeked children and the baby animals and get real.  Jesus’ public ministry was inaugurated under ominous circumstances in a Roman occupied territory in which political and religious leadership were inextricably entwined.

Sure, Jesus is Love. Jesus is also steely; he is brave. He does not back down in the face of opposition; he walks steadily towards it. He does not sit in his doorway drinking tea and waiting for followers; he seeks them out and prepares them to be leaders. Jesus is forthright and smart. He narrows in on corrupt practices and shows how to correct them. He liberates the oppressed and the alienated, restores the senses, embraces the outcasts, and repairs the damage human evil has wrought. Jesus speaks the Truth with words and actions that resonate in the hearts of those who are willing to follow him. He flips the tables; he turns the status quo upside down.

He’s hot Jesus. And he’s here to set the world on fire. [LK 12:49]

The truth cannot be silenced.

Make no mistake; the threat of suppression is an ongoing and present danger today, more so than in recent times. The thing about people who work for justice is that their hearts undergo a change; their capacity for love and generosity increases and with changed hearts come changed attitudes. The last thing authorities want is a rising populous of dissenters so they’ll try to shut it down either by distraction or by force. Think about it.

The disciples eventually realized that following Jesus, learning from him, and being commissioned to preach and heal also meant following him to the cross. At the end of Jesus’ earthly life some followers, literally fearing for their lives, went into hiding and abandoned him.

But not all. The job Jesus prepared his apostles for—to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth—was taken up by brave souls like St. Paul and others who brought about the early church’s extraordinary growth. This job is passed on to disciples like you and me.

We are not asked to give up our jobs, our homes, and our families to respond affirmatively to Jesus’ invitation, although we are obliged to detach ourselves from self-serving worldly loyalties and reattach ourselves to him.

“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Work for the unity of all peoples; seek the transformation of society, mirror the courage of Jesus’ and seek the confidence that inspired countless disciples throughout the centuries, and with each step draw closer to the kingdom of God, Jesus.

Readings for the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

1st reading: IS 8:23—9:3
Responsorial Psalm PS 27:1, 4, 13-14
2nd Reading 1 COR 1:10-13, 17
Gospel: MT 4:12-23

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[1] Bruce J. Malina, and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Second Edition. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2003) 397-398.

[2] Malina, Rohrbaugh p414: “giving up one’s family or origin for the surrogate Jesus-group family (…) was a decision that could cost one dearly. It meant breaking ties not only with the family but also the entire social network of which one had been a part.”

[3] Autobasileia, literally auto=self, basileia=royal power. The Kingdom of God and the person of Jesus are one and the same.

The Kingdom of God and the Cost of Discipleship

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

A guest post by Fr. Joel Fortier

“Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb.”Rev. 19:9

“Foxes have dens and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”Matthew 8:20, and Luke 9:58

Christ is the image, the Logos, mind and heart of God and as such manifests for us the plan of God for all creation. Christ’s manifestation…incarnation…is to establish the rule and reign of the Kingdom of God in our experience, in our time, in our place; to open us to and for us a way to enter the Kingdom of God; to be married in covenant love to one another in God. That is why the Kingdom of God is described as a Wedding Banquet. [Rev. 19: 6-9].

The Kingdom of God is not a time or place. It is beyond time and space. It is “relatio”, a relationship, a state of Being…Presence, a matter of the heart. Time and space are subsumed and held in it…held in Love.

When we are in love, we are in relationship and we experience God as Trinity, the ground of our being, the template of all creation; to Be is to Be In Relationship.

The Kingdom of God transcends all of creation and yet everything subsists in it. It is a place of Presence, Peace, and Love. It is entered into wherever and whenever there is love, reconciliation, healing, and compassion…as well as the celebration and sharing of life in joy and love…as in a grand marriage celebration.

Presence is what makes life and the sharing of life, sacramental. We bear a Presence, The Presence of God…Christ…to one another in and for our world…for others, even our enemies and especially the poor and those in need of mercy, which includes all of us.

That is how and why Jesus could say, “the kingdom of God is within you…in your midst!” [Luke 17:21].

Because it is not limited to or geographical place, Jesus could say, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” [Luke 9:58].

To follow Jesus requires that kind of freedom and detachment, in the Kingdom we are not limited or tied down by geography, time, or space. It is a way and disposition of the heart. When Jesus told Thomas, “Where I am going, you know the way…” To which Thomas replied “we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way.” Jesus told him effectively, Thomas, I’m not talking about geography; I’m talking about a way of Being, of Presence, a way of the heart… “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life” [John 14:4-7].

No one enters the Kingdom, into the heart of God, where there are many dwelling places and room for us all, except thru that “Way”…the Way of the Cross, Mercy, Peace, and Reconciliation…a way of the heart, the way of selfless sacrificial Love.

We are People of the Way…followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who was before time, in time, and now beyond time and has brought all of us along with Him into the Heart, Presence, and Kingdom of God.

In order to follow Christ we must learn to “let go” of our ego, our false self, to let go of time and space, of all things, to be detached, to die a lot of little deaths before the final “letting go” of death itself; to take up our cross daily, dying to our false selves so that we may discover who we truly are alive in Christ and Christ in us. As St. Francis learned and said with St. Paul, “In possessing nothing, I possess all things!” [2 Corinthians 6:10].

Christ is our life! We are in Christ a new creation; we share in the glory of the resurrection and Christ’s own life in God. We are not our bodies, or our minds, or the personas which we have created for ourselves. We inhabit a body, we have a mind, we have a personality, and yet we are so much more. We are incarnate body persons who bear a Presence. Our soul, our true self is hidden with Christ in God [Colossians 3:1-4].

That is the cost of discipleship, of following Jesus, to follow and learn from him, who is the Way, Truth, and Life. In being so detached we find and enter through the narrow gate into the Presence and Kingdom of God which is beyond time and space; Eternal Presence, Eternal Peace, the Eternal Now which is within you…in your midst wherever and whenever there is Love in the midst of all things and people encountered in time and space.

Imminent Presence is the window through which we enter the transcendent eternal Presence of God. The Kingdom is here and now, within and without, wherever and whenever we connect, heal, reconcile, and live in love with one another and God. As that happens the Kingdom and Will of God is manifest… done on earth as it is in heaven!

Now is the acceptable time, this is the day of salvation, this is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it! We live in the Presence, in the Eternal Now, in God, in Love! Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life! Let us follow Christ with Joy into the Presence and heart of God now and forever! Amen.

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Born in 1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL, the Pastor of St Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, wherever and whenever possible.”

ART: Visual reflections ©Vonda Drees. https://vondadrees.wordpress.com/

Very Bread, Good Shepherd, Tend Us: The Body and Blood of Christ

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (C)

Many years ago, in another city, I participated in my parish’s bread baking ministry. This was a group of people who took turns making the large loaves of communion bread that the priest elevated during the consecration.

Many bakers, me included, consider bread-making to be a spiritual practice, but the ritual behind preparing this unleavened, soon-to-be-consecrated bread elevated the task of following a simple recipe of a few ingredients to the level of contributing an essential element to the liturgy.

I baked my bread in silence. No phone. No music. No distractions. I lit a candle and said a prayer of gratitude for the work I was about to begin. As I measured and sifted the flour and salt together, I reminded myself that this was the way bread had been made for thousands of years. Slowly adding the water, oil, and honey, I worked the dough with my fingers until I could gather and turn it out on a kneading board. I handled the dough gently, almost caressingly, and divided it into six pieces, one for each of the weekend’s liturgies. I flattened each piece to the exact thickness and diameter specified by the recipe and carefully scored the surface with a knife before baking so the celebrant could break it quickly into pieces for distribution with communion.

The homemade, whole wheat, unleavened bread was chewy and delicious, and no doubt those who received it in its consecrated form savored it, but the pieces from one loaf could not feed the entire assembly, so it was supplemented with enough communion hosts to serve everyone.

Confession time. If you haven’t already picked up on it, I experienced a bit of self-congratulatory, church lady pride from my bread-baking experience. And during the consecration as I watched the bread that I made with my own hands, in my own kitchen, being elevated, well, sigh, wasn’t I so blessed? What beautiful and delicious bread I baked, and how perfectly round it was, how perfectly scored and easily torn it was! How I loved to see the secret smiles on my young daughters’ faces as they chewed my bread instead of the standard issue wafer.

Egads! This is horrifying. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or hang my head in shame. Everything about this confession is appalling. Not only did my pride obstruct my reception of the Eucharist, it interfered with my knowledge of God’s will for me.

Don’t misunderstand. Bread baking ministries are wonderful. My fault is that I became attached to the act of baking bread, and to the bread itself because I lost sight of what I was doing, and why. What began as way to serve God through the liturgy became the means of my own self-elevation. I’m sure we can all think of other ministries, liturgical or not, which run the same risk. We must always be careful.

I’ve been researching the topic of detachment and am discovering how even virtuous acts born of good and holy intentions (such as baking the bread used for the Eucharist) can, if we are not attentive, become material attachments that push their way between us and God. Thomas Merton, in his classic book, New Seeds of Contemplation, says, “Attachment to spiritual things is therefore just as much an attachment as inordinate love of anything else.”[1]

Merton names the very things people do in order to draw closer to God. In our efforts to detach from worldly things like power and money and prestige for example, Merton says we cling instead to the means of being virtuous and holy. Prayer, fasting, devotional practices, penance, holy books, religious orthodoxy and the like often usurp the priority of seeking and doing God’s will.

We risk being blinded by our zeal, thinking God is pleased by our endless busyness. Merton says even spiritual goals like seeking a sense of God’s presence are attachments that get in the way of God’s pure communion with us.

Merton’s words recall the story of the rich young man from the gospel of Mark 10:17-31, who approached Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. A sincere man who loved God, who did the right things and was obedient to the laws and observed the rituals of his faith, he turned away when he learned the cost of heavenly treasure was his belongings, his identity and social status—everything he had. As the disappointed man walked away Jesus said “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Can you picture the faces of the disciples, who literally gave up everything to follow Jesus, when they heard these words? We also wonder “Then who can be saved?”

The ability to detach from our will to listen for God’s will is a herculean but essential practice if the words “thy will be done” are to have any meaning. It seems that our well-intentioned activities run the risk of becoming a kind of spiritual filibuster intended to hold off God’s will. It’s like we are saying, “Thanks for everything, but we’ll take it from here. Aren’t we wonderfully made?”

According to Merton, what God asks of us is to be quiet and allow the “secret work” that has begun in our souls to take place. Quiet means learning to silence our minds and pay attention. It also means quelling our need to take charge, to win, to be number one.

Which begs the question: What are we supposed to do?

I think part of the answer can be found in Luke’s account of the feeding of the multitudes, which we will hear proclaimed this weekend as we celebrate the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

The story picks up after the newly commissioned apostles returned from their mission of “proclaiming the kingdom of God and healing.” [LK 9:2]. Jesus tried to retreat with them to a remote city where they could regroup but his presence attracted an enormous and hungry crowd. (Remember, in the days of Jesus hunger was a given; everyone was always hungry.)

We know the details of this story: Jesus welcomed the crowd and told them about the kingdom of God. The disciples saw both the lateness of the day and the crowd’s rising hunger and asked Jesus to dismiss the crowds so everyone could find food,  but Jesus’ challenged the disciples to feed the crowd themselves. All they had was five loaves of bread and two fish. So Jesus organized the crowd into manageable groups of fifty, blessed the spare meal and set it before them. Everyone ate, and there were twelve baskets of leftovers.

If we are attentive we will remember that in the kingdom of God there is no hunger or thirst. Yes, this was a miracle. Through the alleviation of their hunger, the crowd was given a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

Still, some of us have to demythologize biblical miracles in order to settle on a logical human explanation. We miss the point when we insist there is no way that Jesus could have multiplied five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 people. We are positive it had to have been the people themselves who out of embarrassment or forgotten generosity, or love, opened their sacks and shared their food with one another.

It was Jesus who fed and who continues to feed the crowds, but that’s not to say the crowd also didn’t share their food with one another. It was love that fed the multitudes.

If anything this affirms our faith in the goodness of humankind and restores hope for the world. The theory that humans are inherently selfish is a lie. People want to give of themselves and help others in meaningful ways, such as sharing our food with those who have none. But the point Merton makes about attachments is important. How many of our works are motivated by the pure intention of drawing closer to God? Do we seek the face of God in the hungry? The poor? The refugees? How about our enemies? Does it matter? It does if we want to share the Love that feeds the world.

Very bread, good shepherd, tend us,
Jesu, of your love befriend us,
You refresh us, you defend us,
Your eternal goodness send us
In the land of life to see. [2]

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation. Reprint. New York, New Directions, 2007.  205.

[2] Excerpt from the Lauda Sion sequence which is sung or proclaimed at the liturgies celebrating the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.