Tuesday, Seventh Week of Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for February 21, 2017

Sirach 2:1-11, Psalm 37: 3-4, 18-19, 27-28, 39-40, Mark 9:30 – 37

This week I was reading some material about G. K. Chesterton and his fascination with the role of paradox and contradiction in Christianity. He points out that in the paradoxes and apparent contradictions of faith lie the very key to Christianity and its embrace of all of life. The “both,” “and” of Catholic theology is an extension of this sense that all of life is sacred and trying to formulate a good vs. bad system or ideology is folly in the face of life’s endless variety and uncontained vitality.

I mention this because it seems to me today’s readings give us good examples of fully Christian paradox. Let’s begin with the Gospel and key Christian beliefs. Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to be killed but then three days later rise from the dead. This is so “out there” that the disciples don’t even know how to ask him to explain. Still they aren’t above trying to calculate who among them is doing the best job and may turn out to be the greatest of his followers. So Jesus gives them the criteria: be a servant of other people, take care of those like a child who are totally dependent and could never pay you back. This is the way of being “first” because it will bring you into personal contact with God. Literally God will be with you. Mark says it like this, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”

So this is where Sirach and our Psalm may be able to help because they talk about what it is to have a relationship with God. Remember we’re illustrating apparent contradictions here with the thought that this is how Christianity exhibits an inclusivity that embraces all of life. Even perhaps what is beyond our grasp, like dying and rising from the dead three days later.

I think the Psalm response most clearly states the sense of today’s selection, “Commit your life to the Lord, and he will help you.” Sirach is making the same point, “he is a protector to all who seek him.” Yet Sirach begins with, “when you come to serve the LORD … prepare yourself for trials.” This is followed by a whole series of conditions that accompany being helped by God and receiving his compassion and mercy. These include: “Accept whatever befalls you … in crushing misfortune be patient” for “worthy people (are tested) in the crucible of humiliation.”

Finally Sirach claims, “Study the generations long past and understand; has anyone hoped in the LORD and been disappointed? Has anyone persevered in his commandments and been forsaken?” Here we have the crux of the paradoxical issue. Would you want to ask Jews how well they’ve faired historically at not being forsaken? How about endless martyrs and saints of the church? Within my lifetime, people like Oscar Romero, a great group of sisters in El Salvador or Martin Luther King and various freedom fighters in the South, none of whom would seem to have come out on top even though they were caring for those “children,” those disadvantaged that God favors. So I guess Sirach really means it when he says, “My son, when you come to serve the LORD, stand in justice and fear, prepare yourself for trials.”

I believe what’s going on here is truth about life. People die in service to what they believe in. Bad things happen to good people. Life has value in and of itself. We have the opportunity to contribute to a better life for others and ourselves. Especially if a better life means treating others with dignity, being honest in our relationships, accepting ourselves as imperfect but valuable individuals, enjoying the beauty and freedom of life itself and working toward those things that give support, love and joy to everyone’s life. God’s presence is part of doing good in this world. Yes, life and Christianity are full of paradoxes. Situations that are not just more than they seem but are contradictions of what we believe to be true. It is what faith is about, which is better explained as trust. Which is what Sirach is trying to tell us:

Wait on God, with patience, cling to him, forsake him not;
thus will you be wise in all your ways.
Accept whatever befalls you,
when sorrowful, be steadfast,
and in crushing misfortune be patient

I believe we can trust God and “hope for good things, for lasting joy and mercy” even when the worst things are happening, paradox or not.

Friday, Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for February 17, 2017

Genesis 11: 1-9, Psalm 33: 10-15, Mark 8:34 – 9:1

I think today’s readings challenge us to consider who we really are. To what extent is there a “façade” that we show to the world while protecting our inner more vulnerable self? Are we motivated solely by our ego or are there deeper concerns and realities that shape who we are and how we live our lives?

Without the help of psychological language or modern scientific understanding, Jesus in today’s Gospel raises the question of the authentic self by talking about taking up our own crosses and following Him. He raises the paradox of giving up a superficial, self-centered life to discover a richer more abundant life of loving care and concern for others. He goes so far as to predict that living in this way can make one open to the Kingdom of God right here in this life.

The reading from Genesis can be seen in a similar way. Human kind has plans of its own. These plans, designed to protect and strengthen people in their current ways, is in sharp contrast to God’s plan. According to the author, people thought the best thing for them was to be together, to pursue the same goals, to live in one place. In order to build on their uniformity, what they had in common.

God’s plans were different. God wanted them to spread throughout the earth, going to different places, developing under different circumstances and key to this passage, speaking different languages.

So whose plans do we follow? I do think the paradox stills applies. To become who we are meant to be we often have to deny some of things we think would be best for us.

I think most people would still be more comfortable with people like themselves. Don’t we often surround ourselves with people who think like we do, who have similar goals and have had similar experiences. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. But at the same time, because of foreign travel, television, the internet and all the forms of modern communication, we are becoming more aware of how a wide variety of experiences and knowing people from diverse cultures make for a richer life and a deeper appreciation of people and what is possible in this life.

Still the differences some people exhibit make us ill at ease or anxious before we even get to know them.

How often have we had plans for how our life was to go and then life went another direction that we could not control? What kind of differences have been forced on us that we later came to see as rewarding and wonderful. Haven’t we received the gift of God’s kingdom in many ways we could never have foreseen? Aren’t there joys in our lives that came out of nowhere?

I think these readings remind us we have to be open to the unexpected and the unknown both in our daily lives and even in discovering the parts of ourselves we may not have been willing to explore. If we believe as the Psalmist says, that God “fashioned the heart of each” of us. Then letting go of some of our attitudes and plans and trusting in God’s direction, in God’s call and in God’s challenges may lead us not only to God but to the joys and happiness that resides at the heart of who we are.

Monday, Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for February 13, 2017

Genesis 4:1-15, 25, Psalm 50:1, 8, 16bc-17, 20-2, Mark 8: 11-13

In order to get the most from today’s Gospel I think we have to look at the Scripture passages that come immediately before and after the section we read this morning. The questioning by the Pharisees is preceded by the multiplication of the loaves and the feeding of 4,000 people with 7 loaves of bread and then followed by a conversation in which his disciples misunderstand his comments about the destructive power of hidden agendas.

We must also remember that the Gospels were not written to be a history of Jesus’ life but rather as a tool for explaining to people what faith in Jesus was about. Certainly the events in the Gospels have an historical basis but the evangelists, the writers of the Gospels, were well, evangelizing, trying to spread the message. So let’s look at this part of Mark’s gospel just as a first time reader might.

You’ve just read that 4,000 people were fed on seven loaves of bread and a few fish and the leftovers filled seven baskets. Then the very next thing that happens is a group of Pharisees asks Jesus for a sign from heaven as proof that his message is from God. Wouldn’t you think, you’d just read about the best sign of heavenly generosity you could think of? But what is really puzzling is Jesus’ answer, “no sign will be given to this generation.” Isn’t this the same guy who just fed those 4,000 and has been curing and healing people all over the countryside?

I think the key to this question is that Jesus “sighed from the depth of his spirit.” The story is an example of how people cannot see what is right in front of them. In this case, Mark is talking about how we recognize God’s presence.

Jesus’ sigh signals his frustration with people’s tendency to rely on some outside event to prove for them it is OK to believe. Jesus reply is an acknowledgement that there never is proof certain for someone who can’t hear and see for themselves. The person who requires outside proof is someone who isn’t listening to his or her own heart, his or her own experience. In that case there is no way to prove faith. When it comes to recognizing God’s presence in our lives we are the only one who can see it for ourselves.

This point is reinforced by what follows the Pharisees questioning. The disciples and Jesus go across the lake and Jesus warns them about the destructive influence of the Pharisees. He refers to their influence as yeast in the bread and the Apostles misinterpret what he says, thinking they forgot to bring enough bread for the journey. Jesus then questions their ability to understand his mission. He asks, “Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?”

This is exactly what Jesus found so frustrating with the Pharisees. You can feed 4,000 people and your own disciples can’t seem to see the message of God’s generous providence to all of us.

For me the core of today’s Gospel is Jesus’ own sadness that so many people couldn’t recognize the gift that was in the middle of their lives. Isn’t that exactly one of the issues that still plague us? Do we recognize God’s love present in our midst and then live accordingly?

How do we learn to see what God is trying to do and hear what God is trying to say in our lives? Based on today’s Gospel, that has been an issue from the very beginning of Jesus mission among us. So let’s remember the key lesson here. Don’t look outside yourself for some absolute answer or proof that will clear everything up. That’s exactly what won’t happen. Instead the only place to look for answers is within us and our everyday experience, our feelings. Like the sigh of Jesus from the depth of his spirit, it tells us so much about who we really are.

Tuesday, Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for February 7, 2017

Genesis 1:20-2:4a, Psalm 8:4-9, Mark 7: 1-13

So do we acknowledge that God gives us everything we have?

Do we consider ourselves utterly dependent on God’s gifts for everything in our life?

If not, that’s the perspective we are hearing in today’s readings. Genesis, the Psalm and the Gospel are all telling us that at the very ground of our being, where we begin, God is the one who counts.

In Genesis the ancient Jewish writers made the point by saying that God made everything. That’s a pretty direct statement about how dependent they believed their life was on God and God’s grace.

The Psalmist says we are utterly dependent on God by being a believer who is awed by God’s love and gifts to human beings. “What is man that you should be mindful of him?”

In Mark’s Gospel Jesus is absolutely dismissive of the way the Pharisee’s have twisted Jewish tradition so that the love of God that was part of the original Jewish practices has been lost. Now only the practices survive and none of the recognition that it offered a way to do what God does, love one another.

I think it is hard for us to accept our dependence on God. There isn’t anything obvious in everyday life that demonstrates God’s direct care and support. It’s possible in this day and age for a person to live a life that never encounters a serious proposal of faith in God. Perhaps more to the point, we who profess a faith in God and an interest in being faithful and living a life that exemplifies God’s presence on earth can have a hard time figuring out where God fits into the picture.

Sometimes it’s convenient to think that God lives in Church and that we come to visit and hope to pick up some help so we can go back “out there” and live our lives as good people.

Sometimes we can believe God is active and involved in what happens in our lives beyond Church and other things holy. But when asked it might be hard to explain just how.

I don’t have a clean clear answer to how God creates our world even as we live in it or about why bad things happen to good people. But I do believe that the answer lies in taking the term faith seriously. The best translation of what we call faith is what in any other context we would call trust. So learning to recognize and act on a faith in God is to act in the way we would trust someone, someone who loves us and always acts in our best interest. Like a parent for their child.

So I go back to the questions I asked first.

Do we acknowledge that God gives us everything we have?

Do we consider ourselves utterly dependent on God’s gifts for everything in our life?

Do we trust God?

Can we work hard and be responsible and still sense that the very ability to work and respond is a gift of God’s love. Can we be blessed in our abilities and ambitions yet frustrated in many of life’s situations and still trust that God is here in the midst of it. If we can be open to finding God in this way then we can let go of some of our fears and discover a new freedom that results from trusting in God.