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Archive for August, 2007

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” the main character, Mrs. Turpin, is a proper southern lady who has a very high opinion of herself and a very low opinion of nearly everyone else. But when she’s brought up short by an accusation from a mentally unstable girl in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, she wrestles like Job with questions of God’s intentions and her own place in the kingdom.

The story closes with a vision of “vast hordes of souls rumbling toward heaven.” At the very end of the procession she sees those with whom she most identifies, orderly and proper to the end. “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” This vision, this revelation, may finally turn her from her self-righteous obsession with other people’s failings. The story ends on a note of hope and expansiveness.

I always think of this particular story, not surprisingly, when I hear the line from today’s Gospel: “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” The shock Mrs. Turpin experienced when her worldview was turned upside down must have been something like what the people in Jesus’ parable felt when the Lord said, “I do not know where you are from.”

It seems that we see a lot of religious posturing in the media these days, particularly from politicians who are already racing toward the 2008 presidential election. Religion has become a hot issue, and unfortunately people are too often more interested in presenting themselves as “religious” than in taking a genuinely faith-based approach to the issues and wrestling with Scripture and church teaching and the way to bring these things to bear on 21st century situations. It’s difficult to distill faith into a soundbite. There is also an increasing emphasis on “My religion is better than your religion” or “Inherent in the truth of my religion is your wrongness.”

Both the Gospel and the first reading from Isaiah remind us that religion is neither a popularity contest nor an exclusive club. Isaiah tells us that the Lord says, “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.” There’s always going to be tension between being committed to one’s own beliefs and open to dialogue with those of other faiths. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as the Chosen People interacted with the cultures around them. We see it in the New Testament as the early Christian communities worked to define themselves in relationship to their Jewish roots. We certainly see it in our pluralistic American society with its emphasis on a separation of church and state. And we even see it within the Catholic church as liberals, conservatives argue about who’s the most orthodox, who’s really Catholic.

The official stance of the church is clear in the documents of Vatican II, in the Catechism, in the writings of the popes and the bishops. It’s also clear in the Gospel. As children of the one God, we are to see all people as our brothers and sisters, created by God and held in the infinite mystery and mercy of God’s grace. Our focus needs to be on the Good News and the good works generated by our faith in God. We are heirs to the inclusive love Jesus practiced as he walked this earth.

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“From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three.” These words from Luke’s Gospel always seem to startle—even scandalize—us. We’re so familiar with Jesus preaching a message of peace and love that these words about division and conflict as a necessary part of the coming of the kingdom seem harsh, even frightening.

Yet, if we’re honest, they can also offer a kind of tough love, a comfort to those who are struggling with family issues and questions of religious expression. They name a reality that many people experience but feel guilty about. To hear Jesus himself say that following him may break even the most sacred bond of his time, perhaps of all time, can offer hope in the midst of darkenss.

Religious identity, and the deeper questions of faith that accompany it, can be a stormy time for many people. Certainly for the early Christian community, people were confronted with the realization that they were no longer welcome in synagogues because of their commitment to the way of Christ. The reality of the communities that produced the gospels was that people were being rejected by their familes of blood and searching for new family ties with those who shared their faith in Jesus.

Many people who come into our Catholic faith from other denominations, other religions or no religion find themselves wrestling with objections from family members, even rejection. Hearing Jesus’ words today at least give these people a sense of not being alone in their struggle, as well as some assurance that faith in Christ is worth the price, whatever that might be.

Even lifelong Catholics find themselves going through transitions in their faith and their Catholic identity. Sometimes it’s more difficult for these “cradle Catholics,” because there’s no ritual for claiming an adult commitment to one’s religion. Polls and studies over the years have shown that many people drift away from the church in their young adult years. They may have been raised Catholic, gone to Catholic schools, but the pressures of being away from home, the fascination with learning new things and encountering new cultures, can distract them from things they took for granted. Often they return to church when they marry or have children, or when they go through some life crisis.

Sometimes young Catholics find themselves searching for a more intense expression of religion than their parents have. Like tastes in music, political values, standard of living and geographical location, religion can be a way to carve out a distinct identity, a way of being in the world. This doesn’t always happen, of course. But when it does, it’s good to know that its not completely alien or unexpected. The key, perhaps is to focus not on the division, not on the conflict, but on the ultimate goal: a deeper commitment to Christ, a closer relationship with his followers, whoever and wherever they are.

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The Gospel readings this month spend a great deal of time talking about how we spend our money. In today’s passage, Jesus tells his listeners, “Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out.” And certainly in our culture, worth is inevitably determined in economic terms. We can get a pretty good idea about what’s important to us by looking at how we spend our money. The irony is not lost on me that in the middle of this heat wave that’s settled over Cincinnati, I have a shiny new iPhone but no air conditioning. Largely by choice, but still….

But we forget that how we spend our time is also a good indicator of our priorities. The time-management guru Stephen Covey is often quoted as saying, “No one on their deathbed ever said they wished they’d spent more time in the office.” Sometimes I find myself wishing I had more than 24 hours in a day to get to all the things I want to do. But if I’m honest, I find that I waste a lot of time on things that really aren’t worth the time and energy spent on them. The specifics will be different for everyone.

What’s a waste of time for one person might be an expression of creativity for someone else. I find driving around on a Saturday extremely stressful. My niece, on the other hand, goes for a drive when she needs to sort out her thoughts about something. And when I was growing up, one of my dad’s favorite outings was to go for a drive on a Sunday with no planned destination, but rather a sense of seeing what interesting places we might discover. I found myself thinking about those Sunday drives as I read the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go.”

Abraham is held up as the supreme example of faith by the New Testament writers. He was willing to travel great distances geographically and take great psychological risks based only on the word of God. And in fact, his and Sarah’s attempts to plan and schedule the working out of God’s promise always led to disaster. We can learn much from our great father in the faith about the promises God has made to us for the working out of our lives.

Someone once said, “If you want to hear God laugh, make plans.” In these days of hyper-scheduling, we often discover the truth of this as we’re waiting for a car repair, dealing with a sudden virus that hits on the day of an important meeting or watching the rain wash away a long-awaited sports event. At times like that, we need to remember that what we spend our time doing is most significant not for what it produces but for how it transforms our souls and brings us into a closer relationship with God and with those we love. The next time you find yourself stuck somewhere that you hadn’t expected, forget your other plans and ask God to let you know what you might take away from the unexpected situation instead.

The Scriptures tell us the big stories of salvation: the covenant with Abraham, the exodus, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. But Luke’s Gospel also reminds us that in the little things of life, we discover that God graciously gives us the kingdom of heaven. All we need to do is be open to making room for that gift in our lives. In small things, no less than in the great life-changing events, we can discover where our treasure lies.

And now I need to go knit a sock for my iPhone.

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People often talk about the 21st century, particularly in America, as a time when capitalism, consumerism and advertising have run amok. And while they’re not wrong, it’s somewhat encouraging to discover that as it is now, so it has always been. It’s a difference in degree, not in kind, and it has its roots in the human tendency to focus more on individual needs and wants than on the common good. The source of this misdirection seems to lie in our forgetting that everything we have comes from a gracious God. When we believe that our riches lie in our own efforts, we lose the ground of our being.We worship the golden idol of our possessions, or we gnash our teeth over the possessions of others.

Today’s Gospel begins with a man asking Jesus to mediate between him and his brother over a family inheritance. And Jesus’ pointed comment goes to the heart of the issue: “one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Jesus directs his parable at those who “store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” And the preacher in Ecclesiastes reminds his listeners that striving and anxiety lead only to emptiness. The antidote? Remembering that it is God who “prospers the work of our hands,” (Psalm 90). And Jesus’ concern in the Gospel is that two brothers are feuding over an inheritance when they should be at peace with one another.

Our Scriptures call us back to our center, to the life-giving word of God that reminds us again and again that what matters is the we belong to God, not that we have a lot of stuff that belongs to us. We find our identity in our baptismal promises, not in our credit cards and bank accounts. When we are in right relationship with God, we will have the inner peace and security that makes reaching out to others a natural response to God’s gracious gifts.

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