#SoBlessed #TheWrongPrayer #HaveMercyOnMeASinner

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Late one night last week when driving home from a local restaurant with my husband I noticed a push cart near the corner of the street where we live. It was the type of cart that many apartment dwellers use to do their shopping. This cart appeared to be loaded to the top with laundry bags. I craned my neck as we turned the corner; in the shadow of the street light I made out the shape of woman standing beside the cart.

I live in what might be called urban suburbia; our town, an incorporated city, is situated just 8 miles west of Times Square. Like city-dwellers we can set our clocks by the screech of city buses stopping for passengers; we barely take notice of wailing emergency vehicles and find comfort in the train whistles. We can walk a short distance to the deli, cafes and restaurants, boutiques, houses of worship, the theater, even the grocery store. Some city folk might not agree with the “urban” descriptor, but I know better, having lived in suburbia most of my life: this is city life.

My part of town is a poster child for how successful mixed housing works. Our neighbors live in flats over stores, apartment buildings and townhomes. Turn-of-the-century mansions, pre-war homes both grand and modest nestle together on narrow lots on the same block. We are a blend of socio-economic-religious diversity and it is beautiful thing to behold.

But I’ve never seen a person who was obviously experiencing homelessness standing on the corner of my street.

We pulled into our driveway, got out of the car, opened the door to our house and went inside. I thought to myself, “What should I do, what is the appropriate thing to do?” Then, as I contemplated walking outside perhaps to talk to the woman I lost my nerve. I have poor night vision and thought I might be mistaken. Maybe I didn’t see what I thought I saw; and how would I handle the awkward moment when I offered a sandwich to a neighbor who was simply waiting for the bus? #SoManyExcuses.

Early the next morning I looked outside to see the woman and her cart still there, only this time someone was talking with her. I stepped back in the house to grab something to bring her, but when I returned she was gone.

That same day I read a New York Times op-ed written by David Brooks, a journalist I respect greatly. The article, entitled, “The Power of a Dinner Table” concerned some friends of Brooks who host Thursday night dinners for some of their son’s classmates—kids who don’t have enough to eat. As Brooks reveals, this family’s loving and generous hospitality fills more than hungry stomachs. The table guests, he says, “have endured the ordeals of modern poverty: homelessness, hunger, abuse, sexual assault. Almost all have seen death firsthand.” Brooks writes from his place at the table, where for the past two years he has joined the couple and their guests at these dinners. #MakeRoom

And then I read the readings for this weekend, the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time. The text from Sirach assures us that God hears our cries, judges fairly and without favoritism, and in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus directs a parable to those who believe themselves to be #SoBlessed.

Jesus is so clever. He knows his listeners. If they don’t recognize themselves in the Pharisee whose prayer is to thank God he is not like the despised one who stands off in the distance beating his heart and asking for mercy, they will take the higher, even more hypocritical seat of judgement that looks down on everyone. Thanks be to God we are not like that Pharisee or the toll collector! Suddenly this parable is about the prayer of three people, and we don’t get the irony. And so it goes. Who then will judge us?

To judge another is about as natural a human behavior as can be had. We compare our progress against one another in nearly every capacity of life. Taller, shorter, thinner, fatter, stingy, generous, educated, ignorant, poor, rich, too rich, greedy, lucky, unlucky, lazy, persistent, worthy, unworthy, good Catholic, bad Catholic, true Christian, false Christian, sinner, and saint.

Honestly, is there anything that we don’t judge? To be fair, constructive comparisons and judgments often help us set goals to better ourselves. And that’s a healthy approach. But, when we judge in order to pat ourselves on the back or puff up our own sense of superiority that’s a whole different ballgame. That’s not prayer. That’s self-exaltation.  And that’s not Godly.

Oh Lord, I am glad I am a respectable citizen, and a churchgoer, I thank you that I am not like those who look down on the poor and the needy. Don’t forget that dollar I dropped in a cup last week. #TheWrongPrayer

I did not judge or look down on the woman standing on the corner of my street with what I presume was everything she owned. I did not count my blessings or mumble something lame like “there but for the grace of God go I.” But my sin was what I did not do, and that was to delay showing her the mercy that God was urging me to show her. And then it was too late. #NeverAgain #HaveMercyOnMeASinner

Justice is the indispensable basis for peace: Oscar Romero, Martyr.

Oscar-Romero

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador (Born: August 15, 1917— Assassinated: March 24, 1980)

Today, March 24, 2015, marks the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador, whose martyrdom was a direct result of his outcry for human rights and social justice for the poor, and who is expected to be beatified on May 23, 2015.

Regardless of one’s information or misinformation related to Liberation Theology, I believe Romero’s four pastoral letters, written between April, 1977 and August, 1979 should be required reading for anyone who claims to be on the side of social justice.

Each letter addresses, defends, and directs the Church’s response to the increasingly grave situation faced by the suffering majority of poor and oppressed—themes which remain profoundly, globally relevant—and shines a light on Romero’s own transformation and conversion.

Last year as part of my graduate studies at CTU (Catholic Theological Union) I had the opportunity read of each of these letters. What I read, pen in hand, scribbling notes in the margins lead to a personal conversion of my own, and ever since I have thought of little that did not include a reference to something Romero wrote. In light of the world situation the resounding message of Oscar Romero must be heeded.

The value of Romero’s words cannot be limited to an appreciation of their historic or geographic context. Rather, they illuminate the challenges facing peace-makers in a world saturated with injustice, oppression, and violence. The effect of structural and societal sin and our responsibility to eradicate it was revealed to me dramatically through the individual experiences of Romero, his representation of the suffering endured by the Salvadoran people, and the struggle for self-understanding within the greater Church.

These words: “justice is the indispensable basis for peace” [Letter 3, pg 12] hit me squarely between the eyes and led me to consider that the root of searing anger and frustration around the globe and the violent response to it emerges from the reality of the unjust, inequitable, and inhumane practices of the powerful minority. This reality is represented in every corner of our life today where we see increasing numbers of “haters,” where lashing out is the rule, not the exception, and the threat of military action is considered a “peacekeeper.” I am overwhelmed.

It is not enough to simply “understand” the gospel; the liberating message of salvation has to be taken to the streets. It has to become part of one’s breath and one’s blood. It is the fire of justice, and at the same time, it is the cool water of enlightenment. Oscar Romero’s own ongoing conversion is apparent in each letter’s increasing detail, length, and urgency.

In the first pastoral letter, we are reminded that the paschal mystery–the journey of Jesus from death to life–is the same transformative journey the Church must devote itself to until the end of time. As Church, then, we are an Easter people living a paschal reality [Letter 1, pg 5].

The second pastoral letter recognizes that the Church’s transcendence results both from its immersion in the temporal world, and its duty to identify and denounce that world’s “dark side” [Letter 2, pg 5]. Therefore, the Church’s prophetic mission must adapt to historical changes if it is to “bring into being the liberating love of God, manifested in Christ” [Letter 2, pgs 3-4]. This manifestation includes a share in Christ’s suffering. As Christ’s body, the Church not only proclaims the kingdom of God to the world, and in particular to the poor, who are our brothers and sisters; it is through this transformative love that we draw closer to God [Letter 2, pg 7].

We are reminded again in the third pastoral letter, that the nature of the Church, which emerges from the gospel as an evangelical community, requires an active, liberating response to the cry of the poor, a response which is a threat to those in positions of power.

The fourth pastoral letter, in which Romero delves most deeply into the heart of the national crisis, reveals the extent of his conversion. Grounding his arguments in official church documents, as he had done in the three previous letters, Romero clarifies the authentic role of the Church in history, defends the Church’s right to denounce the sins of the government and of the Church itself, and challenges the Church to take up its rightful role as liberating evangelists [Letter 4, pg 16].

Please take my word for it but don’t stop there. Read these letters both for their spiritual and secular implications.

First pastoral letter, THE EASTER CHURCH, First Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Romero, Easter Sunday, April 10, 1977

Second pastoral letter, THE CHURCH, THE BODY OF CHRIST IN HISTORY, Second Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Romero, Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 1977

Third pastoral letter, THE CHURCH AND POPULAR POLITICAL ORGANIZATIONS, Third Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Romero, Co-authored by Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, Bishop of Santiago de María, Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 1978

Fourth pastoral letter, THE CHURCH’S MISSION AMID THE NATIONAL CRISIS, Fourth Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Romero, Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 1979

No deal. You can’t buy that.

3rd Sunday of Lent (B)

What was being sold in the Jerusalem Temple that put Jesus over the edge?gold_bag

The Gospel of John 2:13-25 specifically mentions oxen, sheep, and doves. But, this was not like a farmer’s market populated by vendors, or a quick stop on the way home from Temple. The goods and the market had a specific purpose; this was a place where animals could be purchased for religious sacrifice. The gospel also mentions money changers. A simple interpretation suggests the system of purchasing animals for sacrifice had become too materialistic and the money changers may have been taking advantage of buyers. Clearly this would be an unjust situation, but was Jesus’ rage brought on by commercialization and price gouging? Let’s go deeper.

Recall the reason Jesus was in Jerusalem. It was  because “the Passover of the Jews was near.” Every year great numbers of Jewish people made the long and arduous journey for the feast. Imagine making this trip, not only with your children and your elderly parents, but with your sacrificial animals in tow. For many it was unrealistic. Therefore they intended to purchase those animals upon their arrival. And what better place to find the finest, most perfect and unblemished animals than in the temple area where  people understood such things? Makes perfect sense.  But not to Jesus. What was it about this situation that enraged him so?

He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” [John 2:15]

Hundreds of years before Jesus, the Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah denounced the cult of animal sacrifice as abhorrent to God, proclaiming what God desired was justice for the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized, not the slaughter of innocent animals as an act of worship. And yet the practice continued as a kind of transaction initiated by humans to gain favor with God. The Jerusalem Temple had become the locus of human-divine deal making.

Theologian John Shea writes “Jesus’ Father, however, is not a deal maker. (God) does not exchange favors for sacrifices. The Father is a free flow of spiritual life and love that cannot be bought, bartered, bargained, or bribed.”[1]

Jesus said, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” [John 2:16c] He literally turns the tables on the idea of making bargains with God, and says no deal. This is not how God works. God wants your fidelity, your commitment, and most of all, your love for God, for neighbor and for all of creation. As an evangelizing people our actions must respond to each of God’s desires, not because these are pleasing to God, which they are, but because our experience of God’s abundant love prompts us to do so.

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] John Shea. Eating with the Bridegroom.Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005. pg 91

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

Food for Life

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood (Corpus Christi) (A)

The Church was born from Jesus’ table ministry and grew in great numbers around the tables of early Christians who experienced the Risen Lord in the sharing of the Eucharist. The act of taking the Body and Blood of Christ into our own bodies is different from ingesting an ordinary, worldly meal since unlike regular food which provides temporarily nourishment, the Eucharist feeds and sustains us for life. But that’s not all. Worldly meals presume boundaries, invitation lists, and disproportionate servings. It’s an unacceptable truth that many don’t eat at all. Jesus’ table ministry included guests who would have been excluded from most tables, and everyone had their fill.

It is essential for Catholics to remember that Eucharist is an activity. When we share this food, we become what we eat; we become what we drink, and are transformed. If we partake, and become one with Christ, we are duty-bound to attend to the worldly nourishment of those who do not have enough to eat. As an evangelizing people we are called to be that one bread, one body, one blood for others. We are called to be Eucharist.

Today’s readings can be found here.