All posts for the month June, 2014

Acts 12, 1-11 + Psalm 34 + 2 Timothy 4, 6-8, 17-18 + Mathew 16, 13-19

A few weeks ago I was reading about this text from Matthew’s Gospel, and a commentator said something that stuck with me for days. He said that you could tell when someone was a real student of music when they heard to Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” and not think of the Lone Ranger. You can also tell when someone is a real student of the scriptures when they read Matthew 16 and do not think of the Papacy. We Catholics have taken these verses and used them to support an ecclesiastical structure that we have created. It is almost impossible for us to hear the words: “You are Peter and upon this Rock I will build my church” without thinking of Vatican City, Miters, Bishops, and the medieval papacy. Scholars tell us that nothing could be further from the mind and the intention of Matthew. Taking those verses out of context within the whole Gospel is like taking a few bars of Rossini’s Overture to start another episode of the “Lone Ranger.” Rossini did not know a thing about the Lone Ranger, and Matthew could never have imagined anything like Vatican City.

Matthew is writing for a Jewish/Christian community: followers of Jesus who faithfully go to the synagogue every Saturday, have been circumcised and observe kosher laws, and still feel obligated to keep all 613 Mosaic Laws. They’re the earliest kind of Christians. They also seem to be one of the last biblical communities still expecting Jesus’ Second Coming to take place in the relative near future. Unlike Luke’s community, they’re not yet into preparing for the long run. They’re much more interested in the implications of living their faith right here and now, convinced that no matter what problems they face, the risen Jesus is present and working effectively in their lives.

With that awareness, we proclaim this Gospel today not to justify or confirm the institution led by the Spirit that grew out of those days, but to be reminded of who we are and what it is this church rests upon. To think that we rest upon Peter is to miss the point and perhaps build upon a shaky foundation. This church, our church, rests upon faith and not only the faith of Peter. The commission we read of today is not exclusive to Peter. Two chapters later in the same Gospel Jesus will give the commission of forgiveness to all the faithful. Faith is the foundation. The faith of Peter, the faith of Paul, and the faith of all the other apostles and disciples. The challenge of our times is to recognize that our faith matters as well.

At the heart of these verses, a question is raised. It is a question of identity. In the context of the Gospel it is the identity of Jesus. In the context of our proclamation today it is our identity. The question today is not “Who do people say Jesus is?” It is no longer about whether Jesus is the Messiah, a Prophet, or the Biblical “Son of Man.” That identity was settled long ago. We would not be in this church were it not settled in our minds and hearts. The question now proposed by the Word of God is, “Who do people say we are?” Wondering what people think and say when they look and listen to us is important, and it has something to do with the foundation of the Church and our future as a church.

Peter and Paul, and all the saints in every age were for their day and time what Jesus was for his, the Word made flesh. By putting on Christ in baptism, we are for our day and time what the saints were for theirs and Christ was for his. Peter and Paul were the continuing presence of Christ where ever they were. That would be their answer to the question: “Who do people say they were?” Our words, deeds, and attitudes make Jesus present in our world today. Our witness gives people a concrete experience of Christ and answers the question Jesus put to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” When we feed Christ’s flock with his compassion and love, people can say, “In you we see Christ.” When we offer what we have to a sister or brother, whether healing, listening, or the truth of the Gospel as we understand it, people can say, “In you we see Christ.” When we are willing to sacrifice and give ourselves totally to another like spouses do to one another, or parents do for their children, or children do for their parents, or ministers, lay and ordained, do for the people of God, people can say, “In you we see Christ.”

Like that breakfast conversation with Peter after the Resurrection, Jesus offers us the gift of reconciliation and renews our ability to make his presence known. Like Paul, Jesus heals us of our blindness so that we turn to him in our need and see his unconditional, merciful love in our midst. When we are for our day and time what Jesus was for his, we offer firsthand testimony that we have seen the Lord. Our witness is anything but hearsay when we tell the story of our experience of Jesus Christ who has rescued us from the power of sin and death and promised to bring us to God’s heavenly reign. Grow close to Christ in prayer. Tell the story of how he has changed your life like Peter and Paul did. Stand on their apostolic foundation, feed Christ’s lambs, and run the race that will give glory to God forever. This is what we celebrate today as a church: the experience and consequences of our own faith; and the joy of living that faith together in unity and peace, forgiveness and love.

Deuteronomy 8, 2-3, 14-16 + Psalm 147 + 1 Corinthians 10, 16-17 + John 6, 51-58

A few years ago when I was in Haiti visiting Father Marc Boisvert at the ESPWA orphanage in Les Cayes he taught me that when children arrive there,  it is always possible to distinguish those who are malnourished from those who are not. It is not just a matter of a distended stomach that we are sadly accustomed to seeing on TV news reports. Long before that occurs, the color of the children’s hair changes. The fact is, sometimes the stomach is not distended because there has been enough to eat; but what is consumed is not nourishing. It is then that the hair color changes. When the children have been at ESPWA long enough, the hair color turns to a natural and healthy looking black that signals improved health.

For some reason that memory came to mind while I was reflecting on this feast and its focus on food. It came to mind in a troubling way as I was also reflecting in prayer over the thousands of children crossing a boarder into this country listening to the outrage and arrogant responses of some with their easy and confident solution to the problem. Hungry and frightened children running in fear from violence and hopelessness seem to be scaring and threatening a lot of very comfortable and secure people in high places. It makes me think that perhaps we ought to look at the color of their hair. It makes me suspect that the undernourished are not the refugees, but those who are living it up with full plates and grocery carts.

As it is, the color of my own hair is not easily identified these days, but the truth of the matter is that all of us might do well to check our consumption and our diets. These times and the challenges they bring do not permit us the luxury of blame and finger pointing. While that goes on, people die. As Pope Francis said recently, when the Stock Market goes up or down a point or two, it is big news; but when someone dies of hunger in poverty, it is never news. Something is wrong here, and while we might find it easy to blame another, a system, a party, or an attitude, someone is starving to death while we fill garbage cans and feed our pets.

My faith tells me that this Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ cannot be reduced to processions with the Blessed Sacrament, Holy Hours, or Benediction. This feast is about the Body of Christ. It is about food and nourishment. It is about unity and a bond among us all that is both mystical, spiritual, and physical. When someone dies of hunger, something in every one of us dies. When a child runs toward us in fear, it must not threaten us. Those are not someone else’s children. Every child belongs to us because every child belongs to God.

When we can find nothing better to do than insist that these children be sent away, it’s time to look at the color of our hair. We are not well nourished. A people who feast on the Body and Blood of Christ are not a people of fear, and they are not a people of ever think in terms of “them and us.”

Before this Feast becomes a matter of political and social issues, and before it gets reduced to processions and benedictions, it is about food and nourishment for the soul. It is about strengthening and building up the Body of Christ in this world, a body that includes Hondurans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, Canadians, Africans, Asian peoples, Citizens of the United States, and people we never even think of because they are so far away. Our fumbling, cautious, and sometimes cruel response to this newest crises suggests to me that we are not well nourished; that the Body and Blood of Christ is not often enough and real enough on our menu to prepare us for the challenge ahead. We are not the only nation facing a challenge like this as people flee day and night into Jordan and Lebanon out of Syria, and as they flee day and night out of Nigeria and Somalia. There are 50 million refugees on this earth today, and many are in their own country because of violence. We cannot hide from this or pretend it is someone else’s problem.

The food we share in here when shared with knowledge and with faith will nourish and strengthen us as the Body of Christ, and then when a new crisis comes we will know what to do and do it right because we are the Body of Christ who never sent anyone away who came to him.

Exodus 34, 4-6, 8-9 + Psalm Daniel 3, 52-56 + 2 Corinthians 13, 11-13 + John 3, 16-18

There is something completely silly about human beings using language to explain God. In some ways, it is almost an act of pride, for if we can explain in our words the Divine Mystery, then we have somehow captured, control, and now understand God. So, comes the annual observance of “Trinity Sunday” right after Pentecost perhaps to test how completely we have received the Holy Spirit and the gift of “Understanding.” Ridiculous!

I have spent most of my life thinking that this is a Feast for scholars, for those who can stand up and speak coherently about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: Three in One, One in Three, Undivided Unity. The hymn we sing this day sums it all up, and it boils down to some kind of mental exercise that has always left me a little bored and put off. As “Sister” used to say to us children in class: “It’s a mystery. Just believe it.” “Believe what?” I would ask in all innocence, and then spend 90 minutes after school writing: “It’s a mystery.” 1000 times!

I had to grow up and get out of school creating some distance from those theological scholars to discover that this is not a Feast of Scholars. It is a feast for lovers. Eventually in the face of love I began to see what this is all about. To help us explore this revelation, the church gives us readings about what God does; not about what God is. The way into the mystery of God is to look at what God does. From that we can begin to stumble around with human language to express what eventually is not expressible.

That first reading is almost a surprise, a surprise at how tender and loving God is with Moses providing the Law to give life. Paul speaks of discovering God in communion, and the conversation with Nicodemus is really about love. Saint Theresa, the “Little Flower” wrote that “The loveliest master piece of the heart of God is the heart of mother.” If that great woman so understood God by understanding the love of a mother, then why would it not be so for a father as well?. Loving parents are the first and best doorway into the mystery of God. Their love brings them together in Unity, but they are never indistinct from one another. The longer they live in that love however, the more one they become. The more they begin to think for each other, to speak for each other, to know without it being said what is going on in the heart of the other. These are clues for perceiving the nature of God. Relationships of this kind are sacramental. They are for us a sign of something deeper and more inaccessible through the sign, and the love they have and share is known by what they do.

We learn more about God from human relationships than from Philosophers and Theologians. You can learn more about God from your parents and teachers than you can from books and movies. People who believe in you, who are willing to make sacrifices for you; people who will not give up on you, who love you no matter what you do or say,: that is how you come to know what the Trinity means and what God is.

That first reading about Moses is a good one for today. Moses is someone worth getting to know. He is a good model and a worthy hero. Today we hear about him going up the mountain for the second time!  He goes up after the people have done their thing with the golden calf and betrayed everything he taught them, and ignored everything he gave them. He goes up there one more time to offer his life for those ungrateful, impatient people. Moses is an introduction to Jesus who comes to lead people who love the light into friendship with God that nothing can break, and unity with each other that is as close and real as blood.

For people who love the Trinity is not hard to understand. It is just a little difficult to talk about like real love is difficult to talk about. And so we either run the risk of talking too much, or finally just give in to the awe of it all and sit in silence holding hands, folded in the arms of the other, and believing that we are a people who have the life of God within us.

1 Kings 17, 7-16 + Psalm 4 + Matthew 5, 3-16

June 10, 2014 + Villa Theresa Convent + Oklahoma City, OK

 The Jewish people at the time of this Gospel’s earliest formation avoided using the name of God. They had all sorts of substitutes, but it seems that the word used by most people was “heaven”. With very few exceptions, this Gospel, so deeply set in the Judaism of its time always speaks of the “Kingdom of Heaven” instead of the “Kingdom of God.” It was the politically correct turn of phrase. It was polite, inoffensive, and respectful. However, a problem begins to arise once you move out of that time and that place because it suggests that the “Kingdom of God” is identical with heaven leading anyone who does not read this Gospel critically to assume that the Kingdom of God is somewhere else, and perhaps for some other time which then makes the work and preaching Jesus Christ quite a bit less immediate and a bit less emphatic since there was hardly any reason to get all worked up about something that would happen somewhere else later. However, there is nothing about the behavior of Jesus and nothing in his teaching to support that idea. In fact, picking up on the themes of John the Baptist, it is quite the contrary. The Kingdom of God, or perhaps better said, “The Reign of God” is primarily and above on earth, and Jesus insists again and again that it has begun. It is an event that has already happened.

 In Israel people began to speak of “God’s royal reign” during their monarchical period; the times of David and Solomon. This idea of God’s royal reign had a relationship to actual society from the very beginning of its use. It would be a real experience in which God’s kingship would be visible. It was not some ideal for the future, and in the Bible this concept never referred to something purely internal or spiritual. The “Kingdom of God would affect all relationship right then and there. After all, people knew that a king without a people is no king at all but simply a figure in a museum. If God is King, then there already is a Kingdom and people within it.

 What Matthew proposes to us in Chapter Five in these verses we call “The Beatitudes” is a profound awakening of the reality of the present reign of God. This is the beginning of the public life and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is his inaugural address. It expresses what he sees as his mission and the agenda of his life. It is not a vision of what heaven will be like. It is a proclamation of the Kingdom of God which he says has already begun. In that Kingdom, in that society, in relationships Jesus is forming among his disciples the poor will be blessed. They will not be cursed. Those who morn will find comfort. The condition of the meek will be reversed. Instead of being left out or last, they will get their inheritance. There will be no hunger or thirst, and mercy will be the experience of everyone. The clean of heart will reveal God. Peacemakers will know God’s favor, and the victims of violence, the persecuted, will find joy rather than fear. This does not describe the future. This is the vision Jesus has for the present, for the life of those who follow him, for the society and its members who are willing to leave all things and follow him.

 This religious community is today and has been for many generations just such a society: a people who acknowledge, profess, and live in the Royal Reign of God. It is not an idea, and the Kingdom of God is not something for an afterlife for those who are worthy. It is a way of life inspired by a young woman in France who caught the imagination of countless people all over the world by her simplicity, meekness, poverty, and mercy. She was “pure of heart” which has nothing to do with cleanliness, but everything to do with the truth that what you see is what you get. No hidden agenda, no other focus in life other than life itself. She said once in a letter: “You know well enough that our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions nor even their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.”There is a “Beatitude” in full view.

 Theresa was like the woman we heard about in the first reading today whose greatness was not so much what she gave to the prophet, but the loving trust with which she gave it all. What we celebrate this week, last Sunday and again today in this old Motherhouse that has heard the laughter of joyful servants as well as their suffering is just such a “Beatitude”: a happy attitude of trust and confidence, fidelity, obedience, and service. When we celebrate and rejoice gratefully with Sister Sylvia, it is not just Sister Sylvia who is honored, admired, and loved. It is also all those who walked these halls before her in solitude with Christ and in sisterhood with companions who like the woman in Zerapath have given it all because they have nothing to fear. Just before Jesus gave everything he had into his passion, he sat down with his disciples in full view of the place in the temple where people left their offerings, and he observed a widow placing her last coins into the treasury. It was a gift of love, and sign of the Reign of God; because in that reign, in that society, and in that loving community Jesus came to establish she had nothing fear about her future. Others would care for her, feed her, give her shelter, and provide from what they had to keep her from suffering alone.

 This is the Kingdom of God, a real place that has social dimensions and relationships of trust and love. The reign of God develops its power where people live the new common life established by God and endow that common life with everything they have. This is what you are, sisters; and this is what you have been doing for the past fifty years, Sister Sylvia. You have left all things and sold all that you have to follow Christ into the mystery of God’s Kingdom. All of you live it faithfully here in a community that is poor, meek, merciful and sometimes persecuted by those who do not see the light that shines in you.

 Sister, may you find hope and comfort in the words Theresa, your patron once said to her family: “May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.”

Thank you for fifty years given to us all in Oklahoma.

Acts 2, 1-11 + Psalm 104 + 1 Corinthians 12, 3-7, 12-13 + John 20, 19-23

It occurred to me while reflecting on this day’s great celebration that in the Apostles Creed there are ten statements about Jesus Christ and only one about the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this is so because everything else proclaimed in the Creed is the consequence of the Holy Spirit. The Creed speaks of God as “Creator of Heaven and Earth”. That work or that act of creation was really the Holy Spirit, the “breath” of God. When it comes to the Creed’s proclamations about Jesus Christ, it is really all about the Holy Spirit from the Conception when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Blessed Mother to the Baptism of Jesus when his work begins as the Son of God.

Even the Old Testament is filled with evidence of God’s work by the Holy Spirit. No one leads who is not led by God’s Spirit. In Genesis the Spirit gives Joseph the skill to rule. Joshua has military might by the Spirit in the Book of Numbers, and every one of the prophets is moved by the Spirit. We often speak of “inspiration” when we are touched by a work of art, a piece of literature, or a musical composition recognizing a beauty that is uncommon and sometimes makes us catch our breath. These very expressions and experiences give evidence of God’s work. An inspired person has breathed in something of creation and the creator with it. A truly great artist working in any medium of art reveals not just some thing beautiful; but reveals something of God, something that draws us to God, to the divine. This is exactly what we profess in the Creed with those simple words: “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” There is nothing more to say. The Holy Spirit is the work of God: all of it.

Not too many years ago standing in the ambo at Saint Mark Church in Norman, I began the Pentecost homily by challenging the assembly to name the “Gifts of the Holy Spirit.” There was a nervous wave sweeping across the church, and I began pointing to people who had not looked away. Gradually, one by one, we managed to come up with the “Gifts of the Holy Spirit”, nine of them!  We got carried away, way beyond the traditional seven. The list we gathered was very convincing, but no one suggested that “energy” was a gift of the Holy Spirit; but from my own experience in all my years of ministry, I think it should be. We can talk all we want to about wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord, but without energy these are passive virtues all of which require some explanation or definition. What we hear happening in Acts of the Apostles today is anything but passive. It needs no explanation or definition. Those people in that upper room had some energy. They got up and went to work. They got up and began to do what was commanded of them by the risen Christ, and they did so with some extraordinary energy and enthusiasm. They had the Holy Spirit. In them and through them God went to work at creation.

One of the surest signs of sickness is a lack of energy. It afflicts many of us from time to time emotionally, spiritually, physically, and psychologically. The sick have no energy to do anything. It is a serious symptom. I remember the first awareness of my heart condition several years ago. It was a lack of energy. I could not keep up. I could not get going. Even walking to the office was a challenge. I had no energy. Fatigue is the way our body signals that something is wrong and our reserves are depleted, and it tells us that we need something that is missing. We must pay attention to this spiritually as well as physically. Spiritual fatigue is just as real as physical fatigue.

My observation is that we are living in an age of fatigue both spiritual and physical. We are worn out from chasing around after nothing but puny pleasures that wear out and are quickly replaced by another that requires more of us than we sometimes have. We do not seem to have the energy to deal with immigration, human trafficking, drug abuse, and the countless ailments that infect our lives and the lives of our neighbors. Even our church is tired and worn around the edges often lacking the energy to be truly prophetic. The popular “Prosperity Theology” that often fills suburban mega-churches makes people feel good, comfortable, and justified, but it never inspires or fires us up about true justice and the reign of God. Too often imprisoned in a kind of fundamentalism that turns Christ into a “personal savior” communities get obsessed with saving the world from sin, while the real sin is not remembering that our roots and our beginnings are in Pentecost.

Several weeks ago I went to the grocery store and filled a basket with things I needed for the coming week. When I got the register to check out, I reached for my wallet, and it was not there. Humiliated and frustrated, I explained the problem and asked them to hold the basket until I returned. I raced home and searched through the clothing I had worn the day before. No wallet. Then I put my hand in my jacket pocket, and there was the wallet. I had it with me all the time. I simply forgot it where it was.

This is what our Feast of Pentecost is all about. I have never gotten into this thinking that this is a Birthday celebration for the Church. In my opinion, that trivializes the reality we celebrate, and removes us individually from an experience that must be our Pentecost. We have the Holy Spirit. We may not forget that truth. Paul reminds us again and again that the Spirit of God that raised Jesus from dead dwells within us. As Paul said to Timothy, he says to us: “God has not given us a spirit of fear; but of power and of love.” The power of the Spirit is not like the power this world generates: a power of privilege and influence. It is the power of compassion, humility, gentleness, generosity, patience and service. More people will be drawn to that kind of power than to the power of might! Greatness in this world and in the reign of God is measured by how much a man or woman has been filled with the Spirit.

This is a day comes once every year with a reminder: a call to remember what we sometimes forget we have: Engery.