Wednesday, Twenty-sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Today’s Scripture Readings

Job 9:1-12, 14-16, Psalm 88:10-15, Luke 9:57-62

I believe the way to think about today’s readings is summed up in the phrase, “all in.” As far as I know it comes from playing poker when someone “goes all in” by betting all their chips on the cards they are holding. This is a situation with no going back. Either the person wins this bet or they are totally out of the game. They are betting everything on this one set of cards. I think that’s what today’s readings are telling us about being a Christian believer, we need to bet everything we have on this one belief.

Luke’s Gospel displays this attitude pretty clearly. In the three short anecdotes Jesus tells, it seems clear that people who follow him aren’t supposed to worry about where they sleep or be concerned with other big events in life so they won’t take their eyes off the path that lays ahead of them. However, there is more here than a simple exhortation to line up on the Lord’s team to the exclusion of all else in life. Both our Psalm and the first reading from Job raise some serious questions about what it might mean to be “all in.”

The Psalm is probably the clearest summary of the situation that I see presented here. The Psalmist is calling for help and the Lord isn’t answering. The Psalmist questions if the dead are the ones who get God’s favors? Is God working wonders for those in the grave? The reason is the Psalmist doesn’t see any response to his prayers. Something even more radical is going on for Job. Job has experienced the total loss of this family, including children, land and possessions. In today’s verses he can’t imagine that God in all God’s majesty would ever listen to him. God is doing all the big things in the universe. God certainly couldn’t be interested in what is happening to him. The key here is neither Job nor the Psalmist questions that there is a God. They are questioning or despairing of their situation and what God is doing in it. That’s the question that is relevant for us.

On any given day, or for too many people in any given length of years, it could appear that God is ignoring us. I would argue that Psalmist and Job are acting in line with what Jesus calls for in the Gospel. They are both “all in” with their relationship with God. Neither knows what’s going on, neither is happy with a terrible situation and neither has given up on a relationship with God. Job may not think God would listen to him but it’s because God is so mighty and powerful that, “Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’” Job wonders even if, “I were right, I could not answer him.” Job simply doesn’t know what to do with this situation. The Psalmist is more confrontational in these verses, calling out “daily” to the Lord and asking, “Will you work wonders for the dead?” The Psalmist has come to the conclusion that God rejects her even if she doesn’t know why.

We aren’t given an answer to either Job or the Psalmist’s pleas. Jesus just makes it clear that his disciples need to be “all in.” There is stuff in life that seems to say there is no joy, no love, no mercy, no God. Will we modify our thinking and behavior to accommodate an unforgiving reality or are we “all in” like Job and the Psalmist continuing the relationship by questioning God, complaining to God, feeling the loss of God, arguing with God, accusing God. In doing so, we keep God as part of our world. Betting it all on this hand.

Thursday, Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Today’s Scripture Readings

Eccl 1:2-11, Psalm 90:3-6, 12-14, 17, Luke 9:7-9

Ecclesiastes presents a challenge to us today. This book doesn’t sound like it belongs in a book about God. It is part of what we call the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament. There are five Wisdom books: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach and Wisdom. They are different from most Old Testament books because they don’t talk about Israel’s traditions, no promises from God, no exodus or covenant here. Instead what we hear are statements of experience in this world, practical advice. The authors believe in God but they are taking their cues from life’s experiences.

In Ecclesiastes this advice is sharply negative. Nothing changes, there seems to be little sense in trying to accomplish anything because you won’t be able to change anything and even if you do, no one will remember you for it. That isn’t what we usually hear in either the Old or New Testaments. Yet here it is in the Bible as the word of God.

The verses we read this morning are powerful and several have become common recognizable complaints in today’s world. Haven’t we heard, “There is ‘Nothing new under the sun.’” and “Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity.” They question why people should work because nothing ever changes. The world stays the same no matter what we do.

How do we square this with Christianity’s emphasis on doing what is right, helping others and sacrificing for the sake of change? We believe God wants us to be happy and lead productive, meaningful lives that make a difference in how the world operates. How does Ecclesiastes fit with that?

Ecclesiastes keeps us grounded in experience, the real world. For all the rapid change that is happening in today’s world, cell phones, social networking on the internet, great medical breakthroughs, better understanding of how human beings learn, the list could be endless, aren’t there just as many things that have never changed. We still have countries going to war, neighbors and family members who can’t get along, people who are poor and don’t have enough to eat, winters that are too cold, summers that are too hot, underdog teams that seem to overcome all obstacles to win.

So is this a world of change or a world that stays the same? Yes.

In fact, don’t we have both? Ecclesiastes is here to remind us to not get too goody two shoes about life and our ability to fix everything. In a society that is obsessed with success, accomplishments and working as many hours as it takes, isn’t it a good caution to hear the question, “What profit has a man from all the labor he toils under the sun?”

I think it can be too easy to accept any single line of thinking. The common wisdom is no guarantor of the best or even correct path. We have to be careful not to be swept up in the enthusiasm of the latest idea or solution. We have to be dreadfully honest with ourselves about what really happens when we continue old traditions with which we have become comfortable. Ecclesiastes suggests we have to be in touch with what is really happening in any given situation. We have to pay attention to where the rivers go, how the winds blow, and where the sun sets.

Why? Because that’s how we encounter God’s presence in this world. God shows God’s self to us in what is really going on, not what we’d like to see or hear. What’s really happening for us in our relationships and what’s really happening to people in the challenges that society faces is where we meet God. We can’t sugar coat the stuff of life if we expect to recognize and act on what God desires.

Interestingly, Herod had it right in our Gospel today. He knew he couldn’t listen to what was being said about Jesus. He knew this person wasn’t John the Baptist. He had to keep trying to see Jesus. We know eventually Herod didn’t like what he saw but he was smart enough to know he had to go see Jesus for himself.

We have to see and hear for ourselves. Really see and listen to what our life presents. It is the only way to be in touch with Jesus for ourselves.

Memorial: Saint Andrew Kim Taegon and Companions

Today’s Scripture Readings

Proverbs 21:1-6, 10-13, Psalm 119:1, 27, 30, 34, 35, 44, Luke 8:19-21

Proverbs and even the Psalm can sound like a lot of rules. That’s how I have often taken many of them. The actual response to the Psalm is all about following God’s commands. My gut can get tight when I read things that talk about God’s commandments. It feels like laying down lots of rules I should be following. It makes me resistant, what is called hardhearted in Biblical terms.

However, on closer reading this isn’t so much about God dictating rules for us to follow as it is about our learning what God is trying to say to us. The Psalm response is actually asking for guidance about those commands: Guide us, O Lord, in the way of your commands.” Notice too that there is a “way of” those commands. It’s not a list of hard and fast rules we’re talking about. Rather this is a pathway that needs to be understood: “Make me understand the way of your precepts.” The responses continue with efforts at deeper understanding: “I will meditate on your wondrous deeds.” In fact, I think the key to today’s readings is captured in another of the Psalm responses,

“Give me discernment, that I may observe your law
and keep it with all my heart.”

The two key elements expressed here are the need for discernment and heart.

Too often we can reduce the relationship between God and humanity to an all-powerful deity making rules for people to follow. It’s easy to consider the key to Christian living as the Ten Commandments or even the more demanding Beatitudes. So that way of thinking makes it easy to miss the other signals in scripture readings. Signals like God is actually seeking a close personal relationship, one based on love and care. Although today’s Gospel might sound dismissive at first it helps point to the “heart” of the matter. When told his mother and brother are asking to see him, Jesus says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” This is the evangelist trying to tell us something about Christian faith: hearing the word of God and living by it is entering into a family, the family of God.

Dealing with family members is always a matter of heart. We love these people even when they drive us crazy. Whatever a family member does, whatever family member asks is always filtered through the heart, the love we feel for them. That’s the lens we need to use in dealing with what goes on with God. What is our heart telling us? That kind of interpretation or listening is what we mean by discernment. Discernment is more than weighing evidence for or against some decision. Discerning asks our heart, our feelings to enter into the process. What’s going on for us? What is my heart telling me in this situation? That’s the way we need to listen to God. Whether it’s reading scripture passages or facing situations in life, the question is, what is God saying to me in this, right now?

How people answered what they understood God was doing with them produced the Proverbs and Psalms and much more in the Bible. It’s what people heard in their effort to listen to God. Over the centuries other believers recognized the truth for themselves in those words and preserved them. Today, we need to discern what God is saying to us and live by it. If we can learn to listen to God’s word wherever we find it then we too will be part of this family and able to honestly say, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” Then life won’t feel like rules anymore.

Memorial, Our Lady of Sorrows

Today’s Scripture Readings

1 Cor. 15:1-11, Psalm 118: 1-2, 16-17, 28, Luke 2:33-35

Including Stabat Mater

Because today is the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows the liturgy contains a unique element, the Stabat Mater. This thirteenth century hymn is a devotional prayer to Mary about the sufferings she endured staying close to her Son, “to the last.” The prayer asks to participate in the suffering and pain inflicted on Mary and Jesus so that the person may come to live eternally in heaven.

At first blush, the prayer can seem too intense.

Let me to my latest breath,
In my body bear the death
Of that dying Son of yours.

Wounded with his every wound,
Steep my soul till it has swooned
In his very Blood away.

Personally, I have always resisted any view of salvation that involves us seeking out pain and suffering to “be like Jesus.” Jesus wasn’t out looking for scourging and crucifixion, people in authority who were threatened by his ideas and actions killed him. Rather we need to follow Jesus’ path of love, care and forgiveness. Really sticking to that will present enough challenges in and of itself. And that is where this prayer has something to say. It is a strong statement of how painful it can be to stay close to Jesus.

The Gospel gives us what was possibly for Mary an early insight. Simeon says, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel….” Mary is going to live her life with a Son who raises questions no wants to hear. She will see wonderful things happen and be frightened by those who oppose and ultimately end his life. She will end up standing in sorrow watching her only son, her first born taken from her. Executed on a cross. The prayer says,

“Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled,
She beheld her tender Child,
All with bloody scourges rent.”

This is real loss. She is witnessing her Son’s defeat. He and all he tried to accomplish is gone. He lost, the authorities have won. She has to wonder what it was all for if his life only led to this degrading, disgusting moment. Everyone has run away or denied him.

It is hard for us to appreciate the reality of her situation since we see her thousands of years later as people who believe in the resurrection and life after death. But resurrection hadn’t yet happened for her. And in one crucial way it hasn’t really happened for us yet either. Human angst over death is frighteningly deep. It’s hard to hold on to a belief that says death is a gateway to new life. It was hard to accept in the first century when Paul could still point out to the Corinthians that, Jesus then “appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” The philosophical viewpoints of the time were challenging the Corinthians about what Paul had taught them. None of us, not the Corinthians, nor Paul himself are very far from Mary’s experience. We have no way of knowing for sure until it’s over.

This is where the prayer, in my opinion, holds a substance and value that is important for us. It says,

O sweet Mother! font of love,
Touch my spirit from above,
Make my heart with yours accord.

Make me feel as you have felt;
Make my soul to glow and melt
With the love of Christ, my Lord.

What the prayer offers is an example of a deep, personal human connection. Mary loses her only son but stays “close to the last” out of love. The prayer focuses on a mother’s love for her child. That mother’s bond of love is a clue to our salvation, our holding on to a belief in the resurrection and the life after death it offers. There’s no sure way to know, to be sure intellectually, that there is life after death. However, coming to know, to experience, Jesus is a connection that will survive death.

The challenge is that to have a close loving relationship with Jesus takes exactly what it took for Mary. We have to live with him for a lifetime. Relationships of love develop over time, with care, experience, challenges and joys. If we want to be confident, to trust in life after death we have to live this life coming to know the God who offers it. This means something different for each of us. But at core it means coming to know ourselves, understanding the truth about what drives us, what really fulfills us and the gifts we have been given. Accepting ourselves and these gifts honestly, we can be grateful and generous just as Jesus was. The way he was for so many during his life and for Mary on Easter when his rising from the dead changed tragedy into joy. The way God’s Spirit continues to free us from fear and enable us to say what today’s Psalm does, “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the LORD.”

Memorial, St. John Chrysostom

Today’s Scripture Readings

1 Cor. 12:12-14, 27-31, Psalm 100: 1-5, Luke 7:11-17

In today’s Gospel a widow loses her only son. Jesus, “moved with pity” becomes involved when he steps forward to touch the casket, breaking Jewish purity laws in the process. He then brings the son back to life and gives him to his mother. It is an amazingly straightforward story of God stepping in to rescue the life of a woman completely alone in the world. I think it is crucial to notice why Jesus acts. Jesus does this because he was “moved with pity” for her. Personally I have always felt drawn to these statements of emotion on Jesus’ part. I think they are little windows into the long ago reality of what happened. I think these little asides, if you will, are there because people at the time were so touched by Jesus’ genuine human outreach that it became an integral part of the story. They couldn’t tell the story about this unbelievable miracle without including the emotion they saw in Jesus. This is important because in the history of the Church there has been a long tradition that emphasized Jesus’ divinity over his humanity. For me it is the humanity of Jesus that helps me sense what God is all about. So this story says that God is touched by the fragility of human life, by one woman’s need. God hurts when we hurt, God acts out of a deep personal attachment to each of us. Too often we have not come to see God’s love in those personal terms and, I think, to that extent, we are the poorer for it.

We must also remember that this was Jesus acting to help this woman. And frankly Jesus of Nazareth, isn’t here anymore. Now it’s our turn. In our first reading Paul makes it clear we are the new Body of Christ. Each of us is part of the ongoing presence of God in this world. Paul expects his followers in Corinth to recognize that each of them has been given their own unique spiritual gifts so they can do their part. Luke’s story shows us how concrete Jesus was in demonstrating God love. He raises a man from the dead so his mother will not be left completely alone and without support in her life. Paul says each of us is part of the larger Body of Christ. We are one in the Spirit so that we can carry on God’s work as prophets perhaps, but more likely as teachers, assistants, administrators, workers. People who are willing to help heal the emotional and physical wounds of life today. I think too often we believe that God acts in unknown mysterious ways reaching out of the ether to put things right. But the Bible says, God needed to send his Son, as a person to live among us so that young man in Nain could be given to his mother. Today, mothers still need their sons and daughters rescued from the possibility of death, and fear and other awful realities. So our faith cannot be only an expression of good feelings or solely an adherence to ideas about God. Faith is only real when it acts as God acts. When we do what is needed for others. When we live by the same deep personal concern that Jesus had and are moved to action to save one another.

Thursday, Twenty-Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s Scripture Readings

1 Corinthians 3:18-23, Psalm 24:1-6, Luke 5:1-11

So I think today’s readings ask us to decide what makes us happy: really happy, little kid giggles happy, picturesque mountain view happy, peaceful quiet by the fire happy, being with each other happy. There was a yogurt commercial a few years ago in which two young women tried to describe how good the yogurt was with descriptive experiential phrases like that. This is about more than yogurt. It’s about what is most important in our lives. However, the yogurt commercial hints at what is involved here and that is, trying to capture, i.e. trying to understand what something means. How good is good tasting yogurt? What does it mean to be happy with life?

The back story is that Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians that they shouldn’t be fighting over whose teacher or preacher of the Gospel is the most authentic. These early Christians had started to develop factions even before other people were calling them Christian. Paul is trying to bring them back to the core message of the Gospel, their faith, that their connection is to Christ and God the Father not any one teacher. What they have learned through Christ about God is true wisdom. Looking other places for the answers to life is foolish.

What I heard when I read it today is the way he makes his point. He turns around their arguments of which teacher they belong to and says that they belong to God because of Jesus Christ. Therefore all the rest, the teachers, the future, this world, their very lives belong to them. They have all the wisdom, value, and authority they need because of their understanding of God’s gift to this world. To put it in terms of Luke’s Gospel, they have all the fish that Simon and his partners have in both their boats. They have already been given the wisdom, the insight into what is valuable in life.

In the Gospel the overwhelming catch of fish demonstrates for Simon that he is in the presence of the divine. Nothing else could provide such a bounty. Simon and James and John were fishermen they knew these waters, fished them all the time, yet they had never seen a catch like this. They didn’t understand the true gifts of this life, much like the bickering Corinthians. Encountering Jesus opened an unseen door. The story says, Jesus transforms “no fish” into “more fish than they can handle”. It means, Jesus transforms what looks like a harsh world with nothing to give for our efforts into a world of wealth and plenty. The Psalm sends the same message, “the earth and all that fills it” belongs to the Lord and the Lord chooses to give it those “whose heart is clean and desires not what is vain.”

Which brings us back to Paul’s references to what it means to be wise. In Matthew’s Gospel, Simon acquires that wisdom by recognizing the unbridled generosity when he sees it and he changes his life as a result. It’s easy to not see the world or our existence that way. We think we’re smart and wise in our lives. We too have fished this lake a long time. Too often the world can appear harsh and unforgiving. Paul thinks this is a foolish view. I think we are being fools when we fail to seek out what makes us truly happy. What could be wiser than knowing what life is all about? What would produce more joy than being satisfied with my own life? Too often we can be dissatisfied and unhappy with life. Looking for happiness in things beyond ourselves, perhaps in approval, power or possessions. I think if we can believe in God and recognize God’s overwhelming generosity in our lives we can describe happy in very different terms. We can recognize close relationships, being open and honest, admitting mistakes, helping others, following our dreams, being at peace with ourselves, and being in love as the true wealth of this world. Oh, and eating really good rich creamy ice cream. (I don’t actually like yogurt.)