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Archive for October, 2007

Luke is very clear in the introduction to the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee that Jesus was speaking to “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” Many of the religious leaders of his day had fallen into the trap so familiar to the powerful of believing their own PR.

Sadly, we still see this tendency today in far too many religious gatherings. There’s a tendency to divide the world into “us” and “them” along any number of ideological fault lines. Convinced of the rightness of our position, we despise anyone who holds a different belief, even a different opinion, and insults fly in every direction. Basic human charity, to say nothing of Christian generosity, are forgotten in the name of some abstract principle.

Jesus was a master storyteller, and his parables often have small details on which the whole message hangs. In this case, if we’re overly impressed by the Pharisee’s carefully constructed rhetoric, we might miss that he “spoke this prayer to himself.”

Someone once said that God created man in his image and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since. A particularly pompous person might be referred to as “a self-made man who worships his creator.” And again, you may have heard the scathing remark, “She’s a legend in her own mind.” Our language is filled with aphorisms such as these because the tendency to exalt ourselves is part of the original sin that tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden: “You will be like gods.”

The tax collector has no such illusions about himself. He knows that he’s a sinner, that he doesn’t truly belong in the great temple. And yet here he is, because he is drawn to the holiness of God’s presence. He’s not there to look around at who else is praying that day. He’s probably not even feeling resentful of the dirty looks he’s getting from the regular churchgoers. His prayer is focused entirely and exclusively on God’s mercy. And this is why, as Jesus tells us, that he goes home justified. He’s gotten outside of himself and his problems to a place where God can truly touch his heart and save his soul.

The Pharisee, on the other hand, never gets beyond the point of talking to himself, impressing himself with his own virtue, focused on his superior nature, his great talent for religious niceties, his particular spiritual giftedness. He knows how the prayers are to be said—but perhaps has forgotten why.

The poor, the sinners, the people who knew how much they needed salvation, responded quickly and profoundly to his message of the kingdom. It’s the professional religious types who decided that Jesus had nothing to say to them. Jesus’ parables throughout the Gospels seem to be designed to shake them out of their spiritual complacency.

Perhaps this is why these same Gospel stories still speak to us today. We need to be reminded again and again to be sure that we’re hearing the God of the prophets, the God of the Gospels, the God of mercy and peace and inclusion. If these stories shock us, then there’s a pretty good chance that when we thought we were praying, we were just speaking words to ourselves. Maybe it’s time to listen for a change.

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We all know what it’s like to be worn down by persistent pestering. Dogs and small children both learn from experience that sometimes it works to whine. And if it works at least once in a while, they know to try it again. And so it is with the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel. The widow seeking justice finally wears down an admittedly hardened judge with her persistence. But we think of this as something we ought to outgrow. We’re a lot like the unjust judge, who gives in to the widow’s pleas, but doesn’t respect himself for it. Americans especially are raised with a sense that “God helps those who help themselves.” We don’t like to ask for help. And sometimes we don’t think that other people should ask for help either. We value independence, often at the expense of true hospitality.

Jesus seems to be reminding us that it’s okay to ask for what we need. Part of having faith means being willing to throw our cares and our needs and our desires on God simply because we believe that we deserve what it is that we seek, and that our gracious God wants to give it to us. Part of growing up means not that we no longer have needs but that we recognize which of our needs are truly worthy of being met.

In the reading from Exodus that’s paired with today’s Gospel, we see Moses praying for the victory of the Israelites over the Amalekites. The writer tells us that as long as Moses had his hands raised in prayer, even that meant someone else was holding his arms up, the battle went in favor of the Israelites. This seems to be an interpretation by the early Scripture writers of the way God’s presence in their midst furthered the fortunes of the Chosen People.

But we know that prayers and other religious rituals are not magic. Persistence and perseverance are strong virtues. The widow in today’s Gospel is seeking justice. This isn’t a whim or a selfish desire on her part that keeps her knocking at the judge’s door. She believes in the rightness of her cause. And she’s not going to be dissuaded if her first attempt doesn’t get a response. Part of Jesus’ message in telling this story is that we give up too quickly. The introduction to the parable talks about “the necessity for the disciples to pray always without becoming weary.” And Jesus closes his story with the rather enigmatic comment: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Faith is ultimately trusting that God wants what’s best for us. That trust will keep us asking for what we need. It will give us the strength to persist in our belief even when we’re tired, even when we doubt, even when we wonder whether our cause is worthwhile. And, like the people who held Moses’ arms and found him a rock to sit on, other people will join with us in our quest for justice, for peace, for God’s gracious answer to our prayers. Magic? No. This is the power of love, the power of prayer, the power of true faith.

Persistent prayer of petition reminds us that we need to be focused, we need one another, and we need God. When our need is great, when our cause is just, our faith tells us that we can depend on God to come through for us, even if it takes all night, even if it takes a lifetime.

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In a touching scene in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s well-loved children’s novel The Secret Garden, the fiery tempered young orphan Mary Lennox begins to win the heart of grief-stricken Mr. Archibald Craven with her simple request for “a bit of earth” for a garden. In the course of bringing the long-neglected walled garden back to life, Mary and her cousin Colin discover healing for themselves and those around them. The miracle of green and growing things works a wild kind of magic on their bruised souls.

I thought of Mary’s “bit of earth” when I read the story of Naaman’s healing in today’s first reading. This foreign military general was persuaded to seek healing from the Hebrew prophet and man of God by a young serving girl. Once he’s healed, he wants to give Elijah a gift but his request is refused. Instead, Naaman asks for two mule-loads of earth, which he regards as sacred ground from the land of Israel, the promised land, the place where God can rightly be worshiped.

A superficial reading of this story might suggest that Naaman is some- thing of an oddball, a man with pagan roots who sees some sort of magical properties in this pile of dirt. But there is an unmistakably primal significance to this gesture.

We are rooted, grounded people. We tend to identify with places, with geographical locations, even with bits of earth or bottles of water from sacred places. This is partly because we’re a sacramental people. The “stuff,” the matter of the sacraments, is an important part of the rituals: water, bread, oil, touch. And so it was for the Hebrews of Elijah’s day.

At times we over-spiritualize our faith and our religious life. This is in part because of the strong influence of Greek philosophy on the early Christians. Centuries of theologians and scholastics have further intellectualized Christianity. It’s good to have reminders like today’s readings that our faith needs to be grounded in the everyday realities of life.

Families have something of an advantage here. Finding ways to make religion concrete for small children can open up new ways of seeing, even for jaded adults. Setting up a small prayer altar in the home, even the simple act of lighting candles before mealtime prayers, can be reminders that God is really present with us at all times.

I sometimes find myself remembering such rituals from my childhood with great fondness, and feeling a need to return to similar rituals today to get out of my head and into celebrating the great gift of faith with my whole being. It need not be anything elaborate: a bowl of holy water by the door, a candle on the table, a picture of someone who made a difference in your journey to God. I have my own bit of earth, a bowl of sand from a fam- ily vacation spot. These things are ways to remember the God who gave us life, who made us whole, who healed us of the separation that marred human creation from the beginning of time.

We’re moving into late fall in the northern hemisphere, a time when the ground itself lies fallow and waiting. It’s a good time to give thanks for the beauty of our bit of earth and recognize that God’s grace and the hospitality of loved ones has carried us through another year.

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Several commercials for the VISA check card show a smoothly choreographed series of transactions at a store, a food court, a basketball game, until someone wants to pay with cash, and then everything grinds to an irritating halt.

Few will deny that we live in a world that glorifies instant gratification. We hate to wait—for anything! Stores are designed and managed to minimize waiting in checkout lines. “No lines, no waiting” over the loudspeaker starts a mad rush of carts toward a new register. The “buy now, pay later” world of easy credit tells us that we can have whatever we want—right now! The billion-dollar diet industry is built on the premise that the excess pounds we’ve put on over the years will simply melt away in a matter of weeks.

I admit that I’m often seduced by these “no wait” promises. I’m one of those people who take food out of the microwave five or six seconds before the bell goes off, just because I don’t want to wait any longer. And yet for all my tendencies toward impatience, I have always found the prophet Habakkuk’s message in today’s first reading strangely stirring:

The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.

Even the most impatient among us are willing to wait for the big things. This is what God is trying to tell us through Habakkuk. The best things in life can’t be hurried. Birth, death, the growth of a child, recovery after an injury, the blossoming—or healing—of a relationship.

Waiting and faith are connected. We can wait patiently when we have faith that the outcome will be worth the wait, when we feel the reason behind the waiting. Habakkuk adds another word into the mix: integrity. It’s a word with strong implications of wholeness. He reminds us:

The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

We’re called to wait patiently, but not necessarily passively. There’s a big difference between a rash action and a faith-filled one. Careless actions most often lead to misunderstanding, even violence.

In the Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, as though faith were something that could be measured. He tells them that it’s not a question of needing a bigger faith. It’s doing what that faith tells us we can—and must—do. Not necessarily uprooting mulberry trees, but perhaps uprooting the prejudice that keeps us from pursuing real justice in our society, or ending the mindless cycle of consumption and waste that threatens to destroy our planet.

The changes that need to happen, whether in our own lives or in the collective life of our world, aren’t going to happen overnight. In most cases, the things that are wrong happened over a long period of time, and the healing, too, will be slow in coming. But come it will, if we have faith in the rightness of God’s plan.

The words of the prophets call us to have faith in our unique abilities, our God-given talents, in the vision that waits to be fulfilled in our lives. Recently I read a quote from St. Catherine of Siena: “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.” This is the kind of faith Jesus tells his disciples that they already have. This is the kind of faith we have, whether we know it or not.

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Sometimes the stories from the Gospels have become such a part of our cultural heritage that we don’t really hear them. Sunday’s parable of the Rich Man (sometimes called Dives) and Lazarus is one of those stories. The rich man neglects the poor beggar at his door, they both die, one goes to heaven, the other goes to hell and their roles are reversed. The rich man is now the beggar, pleading for just a drop of water to quench his thirst.

This is the stuff of all the classic stories, fairy tales, mythology. Even jokes rely on this notion of status shifts and role reversals. And we respond with a deep-seated recognition of both the oppression inherent in the situation and our desire to see bad people punished and good people rewarded, even if it only happens in the afterlife.

We know that we’re often indifferent to people who are suffering from poverty, hunger and disease. It might not be as close as a beggar at our front door that we literally step over to go to work. Or it might be. But we’ve become almost numb to the stories on the nightly news of the ongoing suffering in Darfur and other places in the developing where starvation is an ever-present reality, in Iraq and other war-torn regions, in the thousands who are still unable to return to their homes after Hurricane Katrina.

The best among us take an active role in helping these people. Most of the rest of us donate time, money and a collective voice lobbying in the halls of power when we can tear our attention away from the many distractions of our lives. At the least we occasionally feel guilty that we have so much when others have barely enough to survive.

The words of the prophet Amos remind us that this has long been a problem in human society. Words of contemporary prophets remind us that the problem continues unabated. An unlikely prophet, the Irish-born rock star Bono of U2, long active in campaigns to end AIDS in Africa and bring about debt relief and an end to global poverty, gave a rousing speech to the NAACP. Like a tent revival preacher, he closed with these words: “The poor are where God lives. God is in the slums in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is where the opportunity is lost and lives are shattered. God is with the mother who has infected her child with a virus that will take both their lives. God is under the rubble in the cries we hear during wartime. God, my friends is with the poor and God is with us if we are with them.”

There are no easy answers to this problem. The least we can do is to stay aware of it, even when we’d rather not. The greatest hope for us lies in the heavily ironic words at the end of Jesus’ parable. The rich man has asked that Lazarus be sent to his five brothers to warn them to change their lives and avoid his fate. Abraham tells him: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

We have heard the words of the Risen One. Are we persuaded? And if we are, what are we going to do about it?

Here’s a great advantage blogging has over publishing on dead trees. I found this student video on You Tube when I was looking for U2’s song “Crumbs from Your Table” from 2004’s How To Dismantle the Atomic Bomb.

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