Good Friday

Scripture Readings for March 30, 2018

Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 31:2, 6, 12-13, 15-17, 25,

Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9: John 18:1-19:42

 

Good Friday recounts Jesus death on the cross. This happens because people killed him. It didn’t happen to pay off a God who had been tracking human offenses and needed repayment. It did happen because God had been trying to save humanity for centuries and people didn’t understand the true implications of the message from prophets, priests and history. Jesus dies because people’s hatred and fear destroyed the best efforts of the Son of God. Except, of course, people didn’t really destroy those efforts they only managed to kill the messenger, as we so often do.

What we are still trying to take to heart communally is that God wants to give us a life of beauty and peace. We generally find it hard to believe that offer is real. So some person, a real, in-the-flesh human being, had to demonstrate the peace and love of God’s presence so the rest of us could recognize what God’s peace, love and joy would look like. By doing that, Jesus literally changes history, changes the reality we live in by accomplishing what God has wanted since Adam looked across the garden. In Biblical terms, Jesus does what Adam failed to do. People now live in a world where God’s will has been done. At least once.

The problem is, it cost Jesus everything to do it. So it doesn’t look like a victory. Only Easter solves this problem. But that’s a discussion for another day. Today, he dies brutally because by remaining faithful to a life of love, mercy and generosity the political and religious powers of the time were threatened. Today too, radical Christian living threatens the status quo. People in power want to keep it. Privilege expects to keep privileges and doesn’t worry about those damaged in the process. This is the weight of human sin that fell on Jesus and everyone else who now knows there is divine value in living out of love. Jesus came to show us a God that literally lives with us and he was therefore subjected to all the tragic evil a defensive human race could muster.

It’s crucial that we get this right because otherwise we twist the message into a horror. God’s message is that God is with us, takes on our sins, our failures, our fears and hatred in order to give us a chance to live freely, generously and happily. This death of Jesus isn’t about God exercising justice because of humanity’s failures, it’s about God absorbing the consequences of human injustice. God will take and transform the worst we can dish out into a glorious tomorrow. (OK, that is Easter.) Jesus’ death is the demonstration that God means business, “I do what I say,” in this case, that God’s life lives with us.

This is not an easy message. Because Jesus does absorb everything the Romans could do to him. He died. That means being a Christian, one that is trying to live as Jesus did, can be a dangerous and costly life choice. Jesus death doesn’t fix the human condition. It only succeeds in establishing the possible. That’s why the St. Paul warns “we are baptized into his death.” Living a Christian life should change us and it will cost us something. How much depends on what each of us can manage to risk, to love, to give of ourselves accepting that what happens may not look like success. The key is that we live out of love, giving as Jesus did, and therefore, establishing that no matter what life often looks like, God’s love, care and generosity do exist in this world.

Tuesday, Fourth Week of Lent

Scripture Readings for March 13, 2018

Ezekiel 47:1-9, 12; Psalm 46:2-3,5-6,8-9, John 5:1-16

Every time I read this passage from Ezekiel I love the image. The water that flows from the temple gets deeper and deeper, wider and wider and transforms the desert into a place of abundance even changing the salt water in the sea into fresh. It suggests to me the abundance that comes from God. It says abundance is what God wants for us. A place where there is new fresh fruit every month.

I believe the challenge for us to recognize the gift and appreciate the source. Clearly according to the Gospel not everyone is willing to rejoice over good things. A man who has been lame for 38 years is cured but Pharisees are angered because he picks up his mat on the Sabbath. It makes me wonder if there are good things that we miss because we’re too focused on something else. Are there things we decide are wrong, over react to, while good stuff escapes our notice? I know my personal issue is poor driving behavior. I can become obsessed with other drivers for not following the rules of the road. This includes when people stop the flow of traffic to let others in or let other cars turn into traffic before making their left turn off the road. They are probably trying to be nice. Sometimes I can let it go but other times I find myself upset that they are making up their own rules. So this is a very odd little example but I want to suggest that we all have things that we think of as right. We would say this is the way it’s supposed to be and that righteous attitude blocks our ability to actually experience the fullness of what is happening at the time. I suspect we all have some attitudes like that. The question is, if we can box ourselves in with petty little concerns like that, could we also be missing the big picture? When do our pre-conceptions interfere with what else might be happening. More simply, are we too quick to judge. Do we need to be more open?

I know of only one way to go after this kind of thing. Prayer. Praying to God about all of our life and its experiences. Talking to God and then listening to God’s response. We’re in Lent so this is a great time to put aside some additional time to spend in prayer. Maybe a kind of prayer we haven’t tried before. If you are a rosary person try praying with scripture. If you are great with scripture start examining your everyday experiences and talking to God about them. If you do lots of conversational prayer try the rosary as a meditation. In the end, it is about spending time with God so we can see the world in which we live as a person who has a deep trust in God’s involvement in our life and the lives of everyone around us.

If we’re going to get better at recognizing this world in all its aspects as something God gives us every day we have to spend more time deepening our relationship with God. Because on our own we’ll just reinforce our own prejudices. We’re like the lame man by the pool for 38 years, until Jesus comes along he can’t make it to the healing water in time. Jesus is the one who can heal us. Time spent in prayer is the flowing water that will wash us, heal us and quench our thirst.

Monday, Third Week of Lent

Scripture Readings for March 5, 2018

Kings 5: 1-15, Psalm 42: 2-3, 43: 3-4, Luke 4: 24-30

These two readings try to tell us that God’s loving care is extended to everyone, that God doesn’t play favorites. There is no “inside track” for some people to be in God’s favor while others are on the outside.

Since Nazareth was Jesus’ hometown the townspeople no doubt thought that they had a real “inside track.” Surely Jesus would do some spectacular miracles here just as they had heard he had done in other places. But that isn’t what Jesus talks about, instead he reminds them of the Hebrew scripture stories in which God had saved and healed outsiders, people who were not Jews, who were not “the chosen people.” They got so angry they tried to throw him down the hill.

This is not so different from our first reading. Naaman wants to be cured of his leprosy. This is obviously a big deal and Naaman wants Elisha to make it a big deal by a special display of invoking God. He is looking for something extraordinary just as the people of Nazareth were looking for something spectacular. They both want contact with God to be something special, to be “out of the ordinary.” Instead both these stories say God’s presence is available to everyone which means its available everywhere, in all the ordinary aspects of daily life. We don’t have to be special to get God’s attention.

What we have to ask ourselves is, in what ways are we acting like the Nazareans and Naaman? Do we expect God to be a spectacular, extraordinary God? Can we envision a God that is part and parcel of everyday life? Does God act in our everyday life or do we save God for special concerns, dire circumstances and times when there is nowhere else to turn? Is God our personal safety valve?

Instead, can God become, for us, our companion? Someone with whom we talk over how our day went. Someone to be consulted when we find ourselves confused or worried. Someone with whom we share good news and surprises. Someone we just spend time with, as the kids would say, hang-out together?

These readings suggest that God is a lot more available than we might think. Remember who pointed out to Naaman that he would have done anything extraordinary that the prophets asked? It was his servants who “reasoned with him” so that he would follow Elisha’s instructions. And who was telling the people of Nazareth that the day of God’s favor had dawned on them. The home town boy, the one they all knew from when he was a kid. These are the people we least expect to carry the wisdom we are seeking. It suggests that God is embedded in the ordinary things and people we live with every day.

In Church language we say God is immanent. It is also called the sacramental principle. God is here with us in the concreteness of our lives. It’s why we have Lenten practices that are concrete things to do. Pray more, give to the poor, sacrifice something you like. In other words, do something that changes, even in a little way, the way you live. If you make real changes, even little ones, you will be changed as well. If we don’t start with the little stuff, we’ll be waiting for some spectacular event, some fireworks, something big to make it obvious what we should do. We want the big event to make the change for us.

Today’s readings say, the spectacular isn’t going to happen. Not because God isn’t offering us the salvation, the care and the love we are looking for but because we are looking for God in the wrong places. Look at home, look at family, look at work, look at friends, that’s where you will find God and all God’s blessings.

Tuesday, Second Week of Lent

Scripture Readings for February 27, 2018

Isaiah 1:10, 16-20, Psalm 50:8-9, 16-17, 21, 23, Matthew 23:1-12

When I first read today’s readings my reaction was, boy this is really heavy Lenten stuff. The readings present a clear challenge of turning our lives around. Turning from bad behavior to good behavior. But then I got defensive about it, I don’t know that my behavior is all “that bad”. I don’t think I have lots of really crimson sins or scarlet letters that need wiping away. Getting defensive kind of stopped me. Then after a little bit of time I read it again.

This time I noticed the very first words of Isaiah, “Hear the word of the Lord” and I noticed that what the Lord was saying was, “Come now, let’s set things right.” I realized that the readings weren’t so much about us and what we may or may not have done in the past. These readings are about moving forward and how God views our lives. When Isaiah talks about crimson red becoming white as snow or scarlet becoming white as wool it seems to me he is talking about the change itself. The subject is who we are now and not what we have done in the past. It suggests that what is important is our responding to God in this moment regardless of past behavior. That’s why even the worst of sins, those crimson and scarlet things, can become white as snow, because God wants us to be part of God’s plan, part of God’s life right now and going forward.

I think the message here is God doesn’t carry a grudge but makes all things new in this moment. We simply have to listen to God’s instruction today and respond. To do otherwise is to give past behavior power over our present. Worry and guilt about what we’ve done or should have done creates a burden God doesn’t see. It’s why Jesus in the Gospel is so hard on Pharisees and Scribes because they had gotten all caught up in what is required, rules that meant listening more to other people instead of God. As leaders they worried about what other leaders would say, they looked for approval from others and therefore became more concerned about how things looked than for the real needs of other people. They were being hypocrites, betraying their tradition by letting the past tradition supplant what God was doing in the current moment, what people needed right now.

So Jesus’ advice is that we simply work together as servants of each other to help where needed, since none of us has the final answer or the ultimate truth. Our challenge is to “hear the word of the Lord”. That word can come to us in lots of ways: a reading from Scripture, a surprising family situation, a person in need, a friend offering to help. Life itself presents God’s word to us and we have to be ready to grasp it and respond. We have to do what the Psalm says, “Go the right way” and I would add, do it right now. Go the right way, right now. In the present moment respond to what God is asking of us and don’t worry about what came before. When we do that it will be like we wash ourselves clean and as our Psalm says, encounter “the salvation of God.”

 

Ash Wednesday

Scripture Readings for February 14, 2018

Joel 2:12-18, Psalm 51: 3-6, 12-14, 17, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2,

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Is anyone confused by today’s gospel? Jesus says in three different ways, don’t parade your religious practices around for others to see: don’t trumpet your alms giving, don’t make a show of your praying, and when you fast don’t make it appear like you are fasting. Yet here we are at Ash Wednesday and many of us will receive a great big cross of ashes on our foreheads. That isn’t exactly praying behind closed doors where no one will see. You can be sure everyone is going to see ashes all over your forehead.

So why does this reading question public displays of almsgiving, prayer and fasting when that is exactly what Lent asks us to do? Perhaps this story of Jesus teaching about traditional acts of piety isn’t about being modest or unassuming in our religious practices?

The first thing I noticed when I spent time praying with this reading was the repetition of the word, hypocrites. We have three different religious practices, almsgiving, prayer and fasting. But we have one type of behavior that keeps getting criticized, being a hypocrite. Whatever Jesus may be saying about almsgiving, prayer and fasting we know he finds fault with hypocritical behavior.

Every time the almsgiving, prayer or fasting is secret or hidden, it is rewarded by God.  When it is done for others to see, it is considered hypocritical behavior. I think, Jesus is saying the key to the value of our actions is the attitude we have in doing it. Unlike the hypocrite, our thoughts, our feelings, the hidden inner, secret part of us should match what we do in the open.

Jesus isn’t promoting hiding our almsgiving but rather a giving to others that expresses our real concerns. Jesus isn’t against public prayer, he wants our prayer to be about who we are. Jesus isn’t worried people will know we are fasting, he wants us to fast as a way to focus on what we may too often ignore, those inner feelings or attitudes we hide even from ourselves. Jesus wants us to ask ourselves, are we hypocrites? Do we live based on what we believe? Or do we cover our true feelings with phony behavior? Perhaps, it is what we hide deep inside that should concern us most?

So how does Lent and receiving ashes today help? Why the emphasis on almsgiving, prayer and fasting during Lent? The practices of Lent are meant to break into our patterns of behavior. Just as Joel called for trumpets to blow, just as Paul said this was the day of salvation, we need something to get our attention. Coming to get ashes, not eating meat today and on Fridays in Lent, giving money or our time to others, adding a time to pray or changing how we pray during Lent gets our attention so we can practice doing what God’s asks of us. We are being asked to make it intentional so it can become part of who we are.

 

To use a baseball analogy, think of Lent as our annual spring training. Lent is about getting ready for the regular season. In every sport we understand that to play the game involves learning the skills, doing the drill to get it right. We need to practice what we are going to do during the game so it is part of us. Lent is practice for the game of everyday Catholic life.

We all know everyday life is responsible and rigorous. It is taking care of our children, making decisions at work, building loving relationships, figuring out what is the most important use of our time. The question Jesus poses is: will what we do each day match our Catholic faith? Will what we do, match our innermost feelings and attitudes? What we do with Lent could make a difference. Make the decision to do something different in Lent, put in the practice it takes to make a difference every day from now on.

Friday, First Week of Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for January 12, 2018

1 Samuel 8:4-7, 10-22a, Psalm 89:16-19, Mark 2:1-12

My first reaction to the story in 1 Samuel is that God gives us the freedom to choose. Which is what Israel is doing here. Israel wants to be like other nations. They want a King, a ruler someone can see. A King represents for these people a visible leader who will “fight our battles,” and keep them safe. I think it’s easier for people to put their faith in someone they can see than a God they can’t see. God sees it that way. In talking to Samuel God says, “They are rejecting me as their King.” My suspicion is the situation with Samuel’s age and his sons not filling his shoes is a case of “what have you done for me lately?”

We might think that the God who has done so much in Israel’s history that was able to be seen and recorded might do a little wonder working here to remind everyone who’s really in charge. But that is not happening. Rather God says to Samuel, “Grant the people’s every request.” Samuel goes on to warn the elders of all sorts of bad outcomes in having a King. They want the King anyway. I think it’s interesting how much these people are willing to give up for the sake of someone who will protect them. It raises the question of whether we act the same way to protect ourselves. How much do we give up in order to feel safe?

The picture Samuel paints is one of giving up sons and daughters, possessions and finding themselves as slaves to this King. That’s a picture of giving up our future, our hopes and our freedom so that “someone” will “fight our battles.” Is trying to fit in so strong that we give up our own sense of self. Is it possible we put on a face that everyone can see in order to hide and safe guard what is unseen but more revealing of who we are? The story suggests it’s our choice to make. God doesn’t come to the rescue when our freedom to choose is involved.

We have to want to connect. The story is the Gospel is a case in point. Jesus is preaching to a packed house, literally. Nobody else can get close. So four pretty assertive guys take their paralyzed friend up on the roof and lower him on his stretcher into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. That’s serious effort to accomplish a connection. The part of this story that always gets me is what Jesus does next. He doesn’t heal the man’s paralysis instead he comments about the faith of the guys who brought their friend and then forgives the sins of the paralytic. What? My guess is these guys weren’t looking for spiritual benefits. They wanted their friend healed physically. So that incongruity says to me that Mark is definitely trying to make a point. I think it says that there’s no healing one part without the other. The spiritual healing and the physical healing are tied together. Jesus says it to the scribes this way, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’?” Jesus does something they can see so that they might believe something they can’t see.

Some days I just don’t feel good, a down day, not a lot of personal energy. Some people have more of that than others. However, I’ve found that if I just get up, get out and do something physical I feel better. My inner spiritual life gets dragging into a better day because I got on the treadmill, went to the grocery store, cleaned the gutters, or mowed the lawn. It’s evidence our spiritual and physical selves aren’t separate. So when we operate in ways that fit what others expect instead of the values or feelings that make up who we are we create a separation, a break that hurts us. I don’t think we can create a convenient persona that will successfully “fight our battles” for us. Rather I believe knowing we are each unique individuals loved by God will help us “keep it together” in the first place and know where to go for help when we don’t.

Thursday, First Week of Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for January 11, 2018

1 Samuel 4:1-11, Psalm 44:10-11, 14-15, 24-25, Mark 1:40-45

Sometimes when reading passages from Scripture it’s a single word or phrase that catches my attention and is the basis for reflection. Today the elaborate story of Israel’s defeat at the hands of the Philistines is too significant to be put aside. The Psalm reinforces my sense that Israel’s defeat is the issue to be talked about because the Psalm is a lament about being defeated.

The key here is the question raised in 1 Samuel, “Why has the LORD permitted us to be defeated today by the Philistines?” How often do we feel like asking the same question? How come I feel defeated? Why isn’t God on my side? Two things occur to me when faced with this kind of question. First, Israel isn’t afraid to ask the question. In fact Israel has a long history of being disappointed with the way God is handling things. Remember that after being rescued from Egypt the Israelites complained at separate times about lack of food and lack of water. They literally put God to the test. Given dire circumstances it’s appropriate to complain to God about what’s happening. It has to do with being in a living relationship. It takes a strong relationship to support honest, passionate argument. We aren’t likely to take our deepest worries to someone who doesn’t care or worse will walk away because what is said is hard to hear. When we’re upset about something it only helps if we talk to people we can trust. So ultimately this question reveals a solid relationship that Israel can count on.

The problem is Israel doesn’t understand what’s going on. The fact they “don’t get it” is stunningly revealed when they bring the Ark to the battle scene and they lose even worse than the first time. The ark is captured and Eli’s, two sons are killed. That is a serious defeat and this is where our reading ends for today. There is no escape from this loss. Which brings me to my second impression about this situation when it seems God isn’t working on our side. My thought is maybe something needs to change. In other words, if life is beating us up so badly that we think God has abandoned us then maybe it’s time to make a change. Maybe this defeat is God’s way of telling us what we need to hear.

The possible confusion is that doing anything worthwhile takes effort and often costs us something to accomplish. So the trick is to correctly evaluate whether what is going on is truly an overwhelming, game changing defeat or just a reasonable challenge to success. My own experience was that when faced with total crushing defeat I frankly felt that if I didn’t make a change, what was going on was literally going to kill me. It was a point of having to choose a new life or face death. Which interestingly enough is what has happened to the Israelites. Their current course of action is killing them by the thousands.

When the situation is dire then it matches the Psalm today, “For our souls are bowed down to the dust, our bodies are pressed to the earth.” If God is telling us to make a change then we will find what is needed. Lepers were totally excluded from ancient society. But the leper in today’s Gospel sought out Jesus and was healed. That healing changed his life. If our world collapses then we need to look just as hard to find what will heal us.