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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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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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“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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Rock on!

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What better motivation to get back to bringin’ the Word home than being honored with a Rockin’ Girl Blogger award from Talmida. “Honored” doesn’t begin to express my feelings about her kind words, because she definitely ROCKS! If I needed a nudge to keep up with my lectionary explorations, this does it in spades. I’m also pulling Kittel’s Biblical Hebrew back off my shelf for some summer remedial language work.

I am having more fun blogging than I’ve had in 20 years of writing and editing for the world of paper, and one of the biggest reasons is the community it creates. So on to five more girl bloggers who rock:

Brittany at Casting Out Into the Deep gives this liberal middle-aged lay Catholic a thoughtful and intelligent picture of the next generation of Catholics and keeps my horizons from shrinking.

It almost goes without saying that the Ironic Catholic rocks, but I’m going to say it anyway. Her blog is like The Onion for Catholics.

Mormom2Catholic and I connect in another part of the blogosphere where many, many multitudes of people know that she’s a girl blogger who rocks, but her reflections on and struggles with her conversion to Catholicism are both poignant and inspiring. Again, as a lifelong Catholic, I take so much for granted and the blogsphere has opened me up to so many different points of view.

I’m just getting to know the Anchoress’ blog, but what I’ve read so far makes me think she’s definitely a girl blogger who rocks.

Finally, from the world of spinning and knitting, where there are too many rockin’ girl bloggers to count, a shout out to my friend Penny at Spinning a Yarn.

In closing, let me just second Talmida’s recognition of Crystal, who always makes me think, often brings tears to my eyes, and never disappoints her readers.

So there’s my 5+ rockin’ blogger girls. Now it’s time to get outside on an unusually temperate summer day in Cincinnati. I’ll be lying right under that branch at the top of the page reflecting on today’s readings, and I’ll be back to the computer later to catch up on the last couple of weeks.

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