Archive for November, 2007

This year November has five Thursdays, which gives us the luxury of ten days between Thanksgiving and the First Sunday of Advent. I’ve always had a particular resonance with the season of Advent, and I feel a bit cheated when it begins in the midst of the busy weekend after Thanksgiving. While I mostly abstain from the Black Friday madness, I nearly always have houseguests into the following week. So I’m especially grateful this year to have an extra week to get ready for the season. Advent is, for me, a contemplative time, a time of waiting, a time of reflection, a time to listen to the words of the great prophet Isaiah.

We close the liturgical year in the weekday lectionary with the apocalyptic readings from the Gospels, from the Book of Daniel, and from Revelation. Written to persecuted people, these readings offer a harsh sort of reassurance, the promise that no matter how bleak things look, God is always in charge and God’s rule will prevail. For most of us—thanks be to God!—our lives are not quite that desperate, and the images of cosmic battles seem a bit unreal. But the end of the liturgical year, like the end of the calendar year, reminds us that we have many place in our life that need attention.

Advent is a good time for a fresh start. The days are shorter, the evenings longer. Outdoor chores are mostly finished for another season. I find myself settling into new and different routines, and the liturgical season reminds me to make more time in my life for prayer, for scripture, for a little extra care for my soul.


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Our strong roots in democracy don’t give us particularly good background for understanding the biblical concept of kingship. Living as we do in one of the first countries to reject rule by a monarch in favor of a federation of independent states, we balk at the idea of locating all authority in one person. From its beginnings in the Hebrew Scriptures, though, we see that the concept that eventually came to be know as the “divine right of kings” didn’t entirely escape the flaws of humanity creeping into the institution. Today we hear the story of the great King David. Chosen by God while still a shepherd boy watching his father’s flocks, anointed by Samuel, David is now acclaimed by the people as their king.

The ill-fated monarchy of his predecessor, Saul, gives us some important background to the early days of the monarchy in Israel. The people came to the prophet Samuel asking for a king because all the neighboring countries were ruled by kings. They seem to have forgotten that God was the only king they needed. Samuel told them an elaborate parable about the trees in the forest wanting to name one of their number ruler over all, with disastrous results. But God tells Samuel to give the people what they want, and the results prove Samuel’s words to be true. Now the people are acclaiming David because of his military prowess. I suspect that when they repeat God’s words: “You shall shepherd my people Israel and shall be commander of Israel,” they’re putting far more emphasis on the second part of that phrase. The notion of a strong military commander was mighty appealing.

Throughout Christian history, the notion of Christ as king has jostled somewhat uneasily along the concept of an earthly king. From the very beginning, when Caesar was pro- claimed as divine, Christians asserted that they followed the one true God, a greater king and ruler. And even before that, in the Gospels themselves, Jesus often had to remind his followers that his reign as the Messiah was much different than the military leader they sought.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, the people jeering at Jesus frame their abuse in terms of Jesus not using his power to save himself. This was one of the temptations in the desert, the temptation to use his power for his own glory. Once again on the cross, he overcomes it. The Lord’s kingship is simply not about earthly power, military or otherwise. As his followers, we need to remember this.

In 21st-century America, we elect our leaders by popular vote. While we no longer rely on the notion of the “divine right of kings,” we are nevertheless called to bring our faith to bear on the decisions we make in choosing those who will lead us and set public policy. We need to remember that our God is a Prince of Peace, and not a pagan god of war.

Each time we pray the Our Father, we say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s been said by Franciscan Father Richard Rohr and others, we can’t say “Your kingdom come” unless we also say “My kingdom go.” Today’s feast reminds us to let go of egos and power and the idea that might makes right. The well-being of our country and per- haps the whole world depend on our willingness to elect leaders who will live the Gospel message and not simply say “Lord, Lord.”

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Happy Thanksgiving!


You care for the earth, give it water;
You fill it with riches.
Your river in heaven brims over
To provide its grain.
And thus you provide for the earth;
You drench its furrows;
You level it, soften it with showers;
you bless its growth.


You crown the year with your goodness.
Abundance flows in your steps;
in the pastures of the wilderness it flows.
The hills are girded with joy,
The meadows covered with flocks
The valleys are decked with wheat.
They shout for joy, yes, they sing.

—Psalm 65, Grail translation

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Our Gospel today is difficult. Often it’s read almost as a blueprint for the end of the world, a fortune-teller’s description of what will happen before the last days. Books like the Left Behind series spin this out into an elaborate fantasy of good and evil. Even more disturbing are those voices on talk radio and elsewhere that encourage war, especially in the Middle East, because they think that it will hasten the Rapture that they believe is coming before the end.

Every natural disaster brings speculation in some quarters that the events of the evening news are beginning to sound like a catalogue of the events of which Jesus speaks in this Gospel. The Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina were believed by some to be God’s judgment on a sinful people.

But in Jesus day, and long before it, wars were a commonplace result of human greed and aggression. Earth-quakes, famines and plagues were part of a natural world that was imperfectly understood and beyond human control. Ironically in our own day some pf the droughts and famines that plague our world are as much a result of  human behavior as war.

It’s a mistake to read this Gospel as Jesus predicting a particular sequence of events that will occur before the end. He’s saying that people will always interpret such things in this way. But he dismisses it here as he does elsewhere in the Gospels. His followers are not to focus on the end of time in fear and trembling. Nor are they to look to another’s tragedy as a vindication of their own virtue or another’s vice.

Jesus pulls the attention of the disciples back from these global, even cosmic events, and says, “Your own life and what you will face because of your faith in me is more than enough for you to be concerned about.” His words are both caution and comfort: “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance, you will secure your lives.”

Don’t fuss about the future seems to be the message here. Rather, we are to conduct ourselves in our daily lives with a simple but absolute trust in God’s providence. As though to illustrate this daily routine, Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians admonishes those in the community who were so sure that the end was imminent that they were basically sitting around gossiping all day. As Paul puts it, “not keeping busy but minding the business of others.”

We do this when we get too caught up in the news of the day, forgetting that the 24-hour news cycle thrives on fear, uncertainty and doubt. We do it when we focus only on what other people are doing. Often we don’t know—or ignore—all the facts of an issue and make quick judgments based on long-standing prejudice.

Too often minding other people’s business is a good way to avoid taking a hard look at our own lives. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “Keep quiet and eat your own food.” If this brings to mind dinner table squabbles, school cafeterias, workplace lunchrooms or luncheons at private clubs, perhaps these are good places to start taking the advice of both Paul and Jesus. Instead of participating in the “ain’t it awful” chorus around us, we might try being attentive to the ways in which we can bring our own attitudes more in line with the mind of Christ. If we focus on bringing God’s goodness and healing to others, we will, in our own small way, begin to change the world.

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In a recent episode of The Simpsons, the wealthy businessman Montgomery Burns nearly drowns in a fountain. With what he thinks is his last breath, he says, “Apparently I’m dying. Sure wish I’d spent more time at the office.”

We laugh because we know that the reality is that most people will do anything they can to carve out more time for their families, their friends, their lives outside of the workaday world. Time management seminars tell us that the goal of everything we do should be “to live, to love, to leave a legacy.” And that legacy involves far more important things than a savings account and an investment portfolio. It means teaching our children the things that really matter: strong values, solid relationships, an enduring faith in God.

Today’s Scripture readings show us what really matters in life—and in death. In the Gospel, the Sadducees approach Jesus with a question that to their minds shows the absurdity of the concept of an afterlife. Will the woman married to seven brothers belong to one, none or all of them after death?

At the time of Jesus, many people still believed that the only chance a person had of attaining any kind of immortality was to raise up children and grandchildren to carry on their name and their bloodline. Jesus is trying to get them to see beyond this narrow concern and to appreciate how very different life in the afterlife will be. He cuts through their knotty puzzle and says, “They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.”

The reading from the Book of Maccabees also speaks of seven brothers, but the true connection with the Gospel lies in the belief in an afterlife expressed by the boys and their mother. It gives a nobility to their martyrdom and a purpose to their witness. At the time this book was written, Jewish scholars were just beginning to grasp a notion of the afterlife.

Samuel Johnson said, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The same holds true for those who regularly put their lives at the service of others, knowing full well that they could be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. On this Veterans Day we think especially of those who have been killed in battle, but also of police officers and firefighters, all those working in dangerous occupations to preserve the common good.

Parents often say that they would willingly give their lives for their children, and many have proved the truth of that statement by doing just that. The Harry Potter books are based on the idea that Harry’s protection from the powerful and evil Lord Voldemort comes from the fact that his mother and father were willing to be killed to save his life. That kind of love can withstand even death. And of course we believe that it was that love that led Jesus to give his life for us, teaching us how to live, how to love, how to die and how to rise to new life.

These are just a few examples that show us the power of the Scriptures, the reality of our faith, and the futility of those who try to turn religion into an intellectual exercise, a series of required tests. They also offer a powerful argument against those who scoff at the very notion of belief in God. God is love, and love is stronger than death. If we live our lives and love others with this in mind, we will indeed leave them a lasting legacy.

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Luke tells us that Zacchaeus is short. It’s probably one thing that almost anyone who’s heard this Gospel story would tell you about him. He’s that short guy who climbed a tree to see Jesus. Often they see it as sort of a slap-stick kind of scene, with a normally distinguished businessman puffing and out of breath and trying to haul himself into a tree.

I’m not short but I’m left-handed. I’m thinking it might have something of the same effect. You learn early in life to compensate, to find ways to do things that are designed for people who are taller (or right-handed). And after a while you don’t think about it. You just make adjustments.

Part of what makes this such a great story is that what Zacchaeus really is, is determined. He really wants to see Jesus. Again and again in the Gospels we meet characters who have one goal: wanting to see Jesus. In this case, Zacchaeus knows that he’s going to have to make an extra effort. He runs ahead of the crowd. He finds a tree to climb “in order to see Jesus.”

Determination is a value we would do well to cultivate. Too often we let our dreams and our goals slip away because the obstacles seem too great. Sometimes the problem is that we don’t really know what we want. This is where Zacchaeus can serve as a model. He knows what he wants. He knows what he needs to do to get it.

Last September, Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, gave a “Last Lecture.” This has been something of a trend, almost a tradition, at various universities. Distinguished professors are asked to give a talk on what they believe their greatest contribution to have been. Except in Randy’s case, the theme wasn’t hypothetical. At the height of a truly remarkable career as a teacher, researcher and computer engineer, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and give three to six months to live. In his mid-40’s, married with three young children, he found himself facing the challenge of a lifetime. And he made it very clear as he began that he had looked at the reality straight on and said, “How do I respond?” The theme of his talk? “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”

One of the many moving things he said was that brick walls are a way to let us prove how much we really want something. Like Zacchaeus finding a tree to raise him above the heads of the crowd, we need to find ways to go after those things that we really want, the things that will help us see Jesus, the things that will ensure that we’re the kind of person Jesus will see. Because once Zacchaeus was up in the tree, Jesus had no trouble picking him out from the crowd.

In the course of his talk, Randy Pausch also explained that even more important than personal achievement was going on to enable others to achieve their dreams. In a perfect world, Zacchaeus wouldn’t have to climb a tree. The people in the crowd would have helped him to the front or raised him on their shoulders so he could see. Zacchaeus, for his part, gets this message. In a very real way, this is what he’s doing when he tells Jesus that he’s going to give half his possessions to the poor and repay anyone that he’s short-changed in the past.

St. Paul prays that God will make the Thessalonians (and us) “worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith….” People like Zacchaeus and Randy Pausch can help us to make that effort. Maybe starting today.

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