John the Baptist’s Birth

Scripture Readings for June 24, 2020

Isaiah 49:1-6, Psalm 139: 13-14, 14-15, Acts 13:22-26, Luke 1:57-66, 80

Today’s readings in particular always remind me of a direction from my first retreat director, “read Scripture as if God is speaking directly to you.” That approach has formed me over the years. I think it is a key way of understanding the Bible in prayer.
That viewpoint, of hearing God speak directly to us in Scripture is key for all believers. No more so than in today’s readings when it allows us to see that John the Baptist stands in for all of us. I think this because I believe we are all called to point the way to Jesus with our lives. Each of us must recognize we are not the savior but we have been given the ability to recognize Jesus in our midst. Each of us is a gateway to God’s presence because although God acts in our lives, we need each other to confirm our inner most suspicions and intuitions. We need each other to lean on and explore who we are and can be; a process that is sacred activity.
This feast of John the Baptist describes how God works with every person who is seeking meaning and purpose in his or her life, a role in the world. Isaiah says, “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm.” We have received a sacred call from the beginning which only we can discover over time and bring to life.
Even when we are discouraged and lose sight of our goals, God continues to call us to make a difference and recognize the part we can play. Again from Isaiah, “Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength, yet my reward is with the LORD, my recompense is with my God.”
Today’s Psalm makes the point that God knows us inside and out. We will not be lost to God’s care … “you understand my thoughts from afar. My journeys and my rest you scrutinize, with all my ways you are familiar.”
The question from Luke’s Gospel is the question for all of us, “What, then, will this child be?”
We are also given the answer. “For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.” We are here to grow and become strong in Spirit, even with struggles in desert times as we come to recognize God’s presence in the concrete work of love. Then, like John, we can acknowledge a presence beyond our own, creating something new, making the world a better place.

Wednesday, Week Eleven, Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for June 17, 2020

2 Kings 2:1, 6-14, Psalm 31:20, 21, 24, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

I think these readings are about relationships. Specifically, our relationship with God. The first problem for us is, of course, to accept that it’s possible to have a relationship with God. Too often I suspect we think of God as distant and unresponsive. Unresponsive in that how often do we actually get what we pray for? But then a real relationship is more than asking a sugar daddy for another sweet thing. The challenge is the same one Elisha had, will we see what’s right in front of us. Elisha asks to receive twice the spiritual gifts that Elijah had. Elijah’s response is that if Elisha can see Elijah taken to heaven his prayer will be answered. In other words, if Elisha can see God’s actions here in this life then he will have the spiritual gifts to do what he seeks. Elisha who has stubbornly persisted in accompanying Elijah to this moment sees the flaming horses and chariot that take Elijah to heaven. He literally takes on mantle/cloak of Elijah and performs the same Jordan splitting miracle to cross back to the other side.

Jesus is trying to give us a similar message in Matthew. What we do in our life is primarily between us and God and not the society or friends we may think are more important. Jesus repeatedly says, “do not be like the hypocrites.” He wants us to be people of integrity. That is, people who act on and honor their own deepest selves, their own feelings, values and beliefs in their everyday lives. In Matthew, this is expressed in terms of alms, prayer, and fasting. But the sweep of the sentiment explicitly includes all “righteous deeds.” I would suggest Jesus wants us to understand that integrity is at the heart of our relationship with God. When we live according to our deepest feelings and values we are connected to God and all of God’s creation. We are fulfilling God’s creation of us as we are.

Today’s Psalm identifies the rewards of a life lived with integrity. I was struck by two of those rewards, God will hide us in the shelter of God’s presence, and “keep those who are constant.” Yes the Psalm also promises, “How great is the goodness, O Lord, you have in store for those who fear (i.e. respect) you.” But I have to say that sometimes I’d rather just have a safe place to hide now rather than look for a special reward later. Also having someone stay with me when times are tough is a really important. That’s what friends do and that is what these readings suggest that God does. Maybe we can recognize the wonder of that behavior in our own lives and on reflection give thanks for the distinct scent of a flaming chariot and flaming horses.

Tuesday, Thirty-First Week, Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for November 6, 2018

Philippians 2:5-11, Psalm 22:26-32, Luke 14:15-24

 

When I sat down with today’s readings the closing phrase in our first reading from Philippians, “to the glory of God the Father” is what caught my attention. Paul wants the Philippians to adopt the same attitude as Jesus had, one of selflessness. He uses a hymn that speaks of Jesus giving up his role as a divine person to become human and be like a slave with no role but obedience and to die humiliated on a cross. Why? So that God would be glorified. That isn’t usually what I think about as the purpose of Jesus life on earth.

I’m usually thinking about how God loves us. How God is selfless and wishes to share life. That’s the basic reason for creation and our existence. Jesus lives on earth as part of God’s effort to teach us what life is all about, loving and sharing what we have been given so that all the world can be a good place, perhaps even a heavenly place.

So that makes me big on gratefulness, giving thanks to God for all sorts of good things: sunny days, people who are friendly, time to read, my wife and kids, special times and even some surprising moments when the sheer beauty of something overtakes me. But I haven’t really thought much about it all “giving glory to God.” It hasn’t seemed to me that God needs to be given glory. God has it all, so to speak.  Yet today it also felt like something important. Something I should pay attention to.

So I noticed that the Psalm hit the same theme, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord. All the families of the nations shall bow down before him.” That’s pretty explicitly worshiping God, glorifying God. It feels more intense than gratitude or just saying thanks for a good day. I think I am somewhat uncomfortable with this unabashed worship of God. Another line from the Psalm seems to say what bothers me, “To him alone shall bow down all who sleep on the earth.” It seems subservient and I’m resistant to that.

It gets even more interesting then to read the Gospel. It’s the story of a man giving a dinner and many of his invited guests are making excuses about why they can’t come. But this isn’t just any dinner, it’s a story in response to a guest at the dinner with Jesus who has just equated being righteous with dining in the kingdom of God. Someone no doubt resistant to blatant worship of God. In Jesus’s story people invited to dine in the Kingdom are turning down the invitation because of things they think are more important. So the person throwing the dinner fills it with others who are usually excluded. These are people who normally don’t have access, people who have barriers to what others have, to what others are able to do. But it is just these excluded people who are brought in to the dinner.

None of these people deserved to be invited. They are dependent on the largesse of the person giving the dinner. I think this is an image that describes us as well. This dinner is also a world of God’s making. As much as we may think of ourselves as independent and capable, we are, in fact, totally dependent on God for our place at the table. We certainly are responsible for the choices we make but the source of our life and the value of our efforts and sacrifices are all related to God’s gift to us. We have to acknowledge that, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves and have a real relationship with God. Otherwise we are likely to think we have more important things to do than accept our role as guests. We need to let go of the attitude that our responsible behavior has earned us an invitation.

To sacrifice our standing, as Jesus did, is a tribute to God’s gift, God’s love, God’s power to bring us all together. If we can accept our role as guests of God, the one who provides, then I think we can join in joyful song and praise as the Psalm says, “May your hearts be ever merry,” and wouldn’t that, in itself, give glory to God.

Memorial, St. Benedict

Scripture Readings for July 11, 2018

Hosea 10:1-3, 7-8 12, Psalm 105:2-7, Matthew 10:1-7

Today’s readings are about being chosen, and I would say, the challenge of being chosen.

Hosea speaks of the heartbreak going from being faithful to God and then being defiant. Matthew’s gospel tells of those men chosen to be the Apostles and given a big job to do as a result. Even here with Jesus doing the choosing there is literally a Judas in the group. Choosing and being chosen doesn’t always yield the expected results.

My observation is simply that today these readings are about each of us. As Christians we believe we are all individually chosen by God. We are all asked to accept that we are loved and cared for. We know that like the Apostles, we don’t always live up to the gifts God has given us. However, that should not dissuade us from following the advice of today’s Psalm:

“Look to the LORD in his strength, seek to serve him constantly.
Recall the wondrous deeds that he has wrought, his portents, and the judgments he has uttered.”

Perhaps by remembering the message Jesus gave to his Apostles, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand” we can more easily live into that heavenly reality of being chosen, a beloved one of God.

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.

Wednesday, First Week of Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for January 10, 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-10, 19-20, Psalm 40:2, 5, 7-10, Mark 1:29-39

Today’s first reading is the namesake for this blog. It begins by saying it was a time when revelations and visions were infrequent. A description that if it doesn’t fit our world reflects what many people believe, i.e. God doesn’t operate in our world the way God did in Biblical times. If God exists then God is distant and only watches us. A popular song a few years ago expressed this exact sentiment.

What happens next in Samuel is what I have taken to be instructive. God calls out to young Samuel in his sleep and Samuel simply goes to Eli to answer the call. Eli however, isn’t calling Samuel. This happens three times before Eli realizes that it’s God who is calling Samuel. He says, “if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” Samuel is called and replies as instructed and from then on is a prophet of the Lord. I believe God is calling to us, all of us, all the time. However, we often don’t realize who is doing the calling. Too often there is no one who can tell us who is doing the calling. We can go along for a long time trying to answer the wrong call.

Importantly I am not taking this act of being called literally. I think it’s a way to talking about knowing who we are and what we are about. The general answers to those questions are: that we are loved by God, meaning worthwhile valued human beings, who are here to love and care for one another as participants in God’s gift of God’s self to the world. How each of us works this out should be the joy of being who we are. I’m convinced God is trying to engage us in our own personal adventures, if you will. That’s how God is calling us. The question is, are we listening? Do we pay attention to the people and events in our lives that say something about what is good for us? Are taking the time away from all the rush of living to see what’s actually going on?

Today’s Gospel can be seen as a sample of what real listening to God can accomplish. Are we going to invite Jesus into our home like Simon and Andrew did? The results can be quite dramatic. Simon’s mother-in-law was restored to health. Not only were town’s people cured of illness but Jesus drove out many demons. Isn’t that exactly what we want, to rid ourselves of the demons that plague our lives?

We have to do what Samuel did and what is wonderfully expressed in our Psalm response. We have to respond, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” We have to say, “Here I am Lord; I come to do your will.” If we can sort out what is good and worthwhile. If we can be honest about who we are and follow our deepest desires then the words of the Psalm will truly ring home.

I have waited, waited for the LORD, and he stooped toward me and heard my cry.
Blessed the man who makes the LORD his trust;
who turns not to idolatry or to those who stray after falsehood.

Which is followed by:

To do your will, O my God, is my delight,
and your law is within my heart!”

To be happy, find satisfaction, in pursuing our deepest desires. Isn’t that Good News?

Tuesday, First Week of Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for January 9, 2018

1 Samuel 1:9-20, 1 Samuel 2:1, 4-8, Mark 1:21-28

What I noticed in today’s readings was the comment about Hannah after her visit to the temple, she “no longer appeared downcast.” That seems pretty straight forward. In her own words to Eli she describes herself as in “deep sorrow and misery.” So she had come to the Temple and “in her bitterness she prayed to the LORD, weeping copiously.” This was a heart-felt appeal. I think it’s exactly the place where we can feel God’s support.

Catholic’s have a wonderful and useful tradition of published prayers. Everything from the Eucharistic liturgy to the rosary and before and after meal prayers. Catholic schools and parish religious education programs work very hard to pass on these forms of prayer to each new generation. However, that tradition can have the tendency to steer an individual toward more formal and impersonal forms of praying. At minimum the words of prayer are not ours. Worse, we may not be connecting the act of prayer with what is happening for us at a personal level.

We can learn from Hannah. This woman is being totally honest with God and herself. That starts with coming to prayer, “in her bitterness.” Plus she blatantly wants to make a deal with God. This is not, however, a calculated action. What I see here is utter desperation. She is laying herself out there by not holding anything back. If we’re going to talk to God, I think that’s exactly what prayer requires. It involves brutal honesty about who we are, how we feel and what we want. There’s something holy in that process. According to this story it’s the kind of prayer to which God responds. It’s also been my personal experience that when I was emotionally spent and there seemed to be nothing left, at that very point, something changed and I felt better and more able to deal with what needed to be done.

I think it is from these kinds of emotional turn-arounds that the Psalmists and today Samuel exclaims, “My heart exults in the Lord, my Savior.” Note he says, “My heart.” Consider how much of what we read in the Psalms is meant to refer to human events or can be understood to be about the human emotional landscape:

 

“The LORD puts to death and gives life;

 he casts down to the nether world;

 he raises up again.

 The LORD makes poor and makes rich:

 he humbles, he also exalts.”

Isn’t that where we are most likely to find our God, connected to the deepest part of who we are? That’s certainly what is going on in today’s Gospel.

Jesus is teaching in a synagogue based on his own authority, which to me suggests he talking from his own experiences and what the Scripture of the day means in his life. So this is already a personal encounter with the group. Some man “with an unclean spirit” reveals his deepest fears. Whatever “possessed” this man, it was deeply personal. Jesus’ own personal honesty so jarred him that he couldn’t abide what that might mean for him. The Gospel has already revealed that the other people were “astonished” at what Jesus was saying. Jesus, unwilling to enable any further dysfunction, heals the pain that has occupied the deepest parts of this man.

I would suggest that praying to God: actual prayer, being able to make the connection, may require that we recognize our deepest secrets, fears, wounds and desires. Maybe we need to name the “unclean spirits” in order to expel them from our lives. God certainly is listening and waiting.

Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Scripture Readings for November 21, 2017

2 Maccabees 6: 18-31, Psalm 3:2-7 Luke 19: 1-10

Today’s Gospel is about how Zacchaeus, a very rich man, forgets about his wealthy trappings and climbs a tree just to get a look at Jesus and then is changed when Jesus comes to his house. It is a story that says if Jesus comes to stay with us anything is possible. Even rich people will become generous. It says salvation is the work of God.

So maybe we should look at the first reading to see what it might tell us and perhaps it will add something to the Gospel story. The reading from Maccabees is very focused and detailed. It tells us about one incident in the life of one man. Eleazar, an old man and a scribe, is asked to eat the pork of a pagan sacrificial offering. He is respected and a friend of the king’s officials and they give him a way to get around the king’s rules. They offer him a way out … bring some of your own meat and pretend it is from the sacrifice. Eleazar however understands how pretending to comply compromises everything he stands for. To pretend to eat the forbidden meat although not actually doing it is to say that the king’s rules are more important than what God asks.  It sounds like a clever legal maneuver. Look like you’re complying but don’t actually do what is being asked and therefore satisfy your conscience while giving the larger society what it demands, the appearance of compliance.

His friends are trying to help but they don’t understand the deeper issue. For Eleazar’s friends it’s only appearance that counts. So if you look like you’re doing the things others expect then even if you’re actually doing something else, who cares?  I think we see a lot of this today. Public figures in sports, politics, and entertainment seem to only be concerned with appearances. What records they can break, whether they are elect-able, what the press says about them, that is what counts not their actual behavior or positions or values. Each situation seems to be guided solely by how much a person can get away with. Clever words and phrases seem to do a slight of hand. They spin the facts. Public behavior like that suggests we would be foolish not to act the same way.

It is here that I think we can connect with our friend Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus the rich man was changed by having Jesus come to his house but Zacchaeus showed who he was long before Jesus actually came to his house. Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector, certainly didn’t worry about what people would think when he started running ahead of the crowd and enthusiastically climbed a tree. Zacchaeus acted on something that called him to discover what was new with this Jesus. Zacchaeus, like Eleazar, wasn’t constrained by what his friends in high places would say. He wasn’t guided by appearances. He didn’t have to give up his life like Eleazar but he was abandoning any pretense of reserve or wealthy position or even ordinary decorum Zacchaeus went with his heart, his excitement. His unabashed eagerness took him to a new life. In much the same way, Eleazar’s enthusiasm for God took him to a new life.

We may never be asked to give up our life as a sacrifice to be Christian but we may have to reveal and act openly on the commitments we have and the values we hold. Let’s pray we can break from the crowd and climb whatever it takes so we will be able to see what life is asking of us.

Memorial, St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Scripture Readings for November 17, 2017

Wisdom 13:1-9, Psalm 19: 2-5, Luke 17:26-37

It took me awhile but after working through today’s readings a couple times I came to the conclusion that they are mostly about our missing the point. The readings from Wisdom and Luke’s Gospel seem to come together around how even lovely and pleasant everyday things can distract us from our ultimate objective. Do we notice God behind the scenes or are we simply caught up in the beauty and utility of life around us?

The reading from Wisdom is quite elegant in describing how fire, wind and the luminaries of the sky were thought to be gods in and of themselves. The author names the issue explicitly, “they are distracted by what they see.” The beautiful and powerful forces of nature can be appreciated for themselves but we shouldn’t stop at a superficial analysis. We should acknowledge the even more powerful and inspiring God that created them.

The same is of course true when Jesus is talking about how we live our lives. It is easy to be so caught up with buying, selling, eating, drinking, getting married, caught up in all the good things, that we miss the point of the exercise. Doing what God put us here to do. What’s more we can’t be clever about picking and choosing our time for compliance. There’s no radar detector that will tell us when the state trooper is waiting to catch us speeding. We have to adopt an ongoing attitude of care for others, which is the way God operates, or we are likely to get caught at the most ordinary of moments with the call to eternal life.

I don’t think we should interpret this as God’s effort to catch us when we least expect it. No, Jesus is trying to restate and make it clear for human relationships what Wisdom has already said, that beneath the surface of all that happens, God is part of the picture. I think today the question could be: Are we noticing God and God’s desire for us as we go about each day’s activities, each day’s decisions. If we think we can wait until later or another time to bring God into the picture, there’s no way to go back and rescue what we have neglected. All we can ever do is deal with what is presented to us today. Are we acting now, the way we know God asks us to act? Are we paying attention to the needs to which love and justice expect us to respond? Who crosses our path that we could help? What happens in our part of the world that we could change? God may not expect us to change the whole world. However, God does expect us to live in our part of it as one who cares and sacrifices to make it better.

Let’s not miss the point of our life, let’s go below the surface and recognize all that God provides and all that God asks us to do as well.