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Archive for the ‘Jesus’ Category

Lent, perhaps more than any other season, gives us permission to focus on our spiritual lives, to take time apart from the everyday demands to listen to what God might be asking of us. Today’s Scripture readings can seem beyond us, describing those events that we might label “Significant Religious Experiences,” things that happen to saints and holy people.

Indeed, for Peter, James and John, it must have been unimaginably startling to experience the transfiguration. Suddenly the itinerant preacher and miracle-worker whom they had been following around Palestine was so very much more. But even that was nothing compared to the resurrection they would experience a short time later.

The transfiguration was an extraordinary moment even in the midst of Jesus’ extraordinary ministry of preaching and healing. We know that such moments don’t happen all the time or even very often. But we also know that when they do, they change everything we know about reality.

Many of the saints have indeed had such moments in their lives. Nearly everyone has heard the story of Mother Teresa on a train journey and hearing God call her to go to India and minister to the dying there. But many ordinary people have had similar experiences in their own lives, perhaps not as dramatic, but equally life-changing. Sometimes the only difference is that the saints have developed an awareness of God’s presence. They’re more readily attuned to the deeper significance of the things that happen to them.

The transfiguration reminds us that Lent is a time of purification, a time of going beyond our limitations. Even during Lent we know that the blessing of Easter is ours in Jesus Christ. But we only arrive at the fullness of the resurrection through the passion of the cross. As we share the vision of the apostles, we also know what happened after it. And we also know that it will happen in our own lives.

We need to let our experience of God transform us into something we never dreamed we could be. For some of us this is a startling notion. We think of our faith as something to tuck away in the Sunday corner of our life. When we think about the changes that Lent can bring, we’re more likely to think about quitting smoking, losing a few pounds, maybe giving some money to a good cause.

It would never occur to us that God might say, as he did to Abram, “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk to a land that I will show you.” But sometimes God does exactly that. A job opportunity takes us someplace we never imagined we would be, and our experiences there change us immeasurably. Or we meet someone who brings us to a completely new awareness of the power of faith in our everyday activities.

We don’t go looking for extraordinary, mountaintop experiences. Those who do often delude themselves with vision of grandeur and fame rather than a life of deep faith. God breaks into our lives in both familiar and unexpected ways. He constantly challenges us to go beyond, to be transfigured. The dynamic, ever-changing pattern of bright sunshine and dark cloud can be startling and even terrifying. But in the midst of it comes reassurance. We hear an extraordinary challenge, but we also hear, “Be not afraid.” The faith that we cultivate day by day flowers into brilliance in the presence of God’s grace.

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A legendary and somewhat humorous epitaph reads, “Here lies the body of Michael O’Day / who died defending the right of way.” We laugh somewhat ruefully because we all know the truth of it. If we admit it, there have been times in all our lives when we’ve been willing to go to extremes to defend the rightness of our position on something.

Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus contains an interesting exchange that the other Gospels don’t include. John the Baptist protests, with some cause, that it is he who should be baptized by Jesus. He recognizes that his is the lesser calling, that he is the forerunner, not the Messiah. And he’s right. But Jesus tells him, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” This is a bit of a mouthful. We might be inclined to say, “It’s okay, let it slide for now.” It’s a recognition that there’s a larger perspective, a bigger picture, than the immediate issue at hand. In the case of Jesus and John, Jesus knows that his ministry is just beginning and must be seen to be part of the bigger story of salvation, that began with creation, with the calling of the chosen people, the exodus and the words of the prophets. He is the fulfillment of all that has gone before, not a renegade bursting on the scene set to take over and dominate everyone around him. He doesn’t need to prove that he’s greater than John the Baptist.

We see a similar attitude in the other two readings for this feast. The prophet Isaiah notes that gentleness is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Servant of the Lord: “A bruised reed he shall not break, / and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, / until he establishes justice on the earth.” And in the second reading, we hear a bit of the revolutionary turn of events in the house of the gentile Cornelius. Peter, the leader of the Jerusalem church in the days after the resurrection and ascension, has been somewhat uneasy about Paul’s mission to the gentiles. In the early days of the Christian community, the question of the place of Jews and gentiles in the new dispensation was one of the biggest questions that needed to be resolved. So this event dramatizes Peter finally accepting that the gentiles were equal to the Jews. He proclaims, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”

Again and again the Scriptures remind us that God is bigger than our human boundaries and power struggles. At times it takes a great deal of faith to believe that God has a higher purpose than we can discern at any given time. And the more we’re invested in a conflict, the harder it is to let God be God. We fall into the trap of needing to be right, and needing others to see that we’re right. And we don’t always care who we trample in our stampede toward rightness.

It can be helpful in a difficult situation to take a step back and reflect on the difference between what’s merely right and what’s righteous, on the difference between human judgment and divine justice. The baptism of Jesus, like so many other events in his life and ministry, reminds us that while he closed the gap between the human and the divine, he did it in such a way that we would be able to resist the temptation in the Garden of Eden to be merely like gods. Through Jesus, we, too, are children of God. If we live that way, others will listen to us.

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A lot of mental and emotional interference takes place when we hear the readings for this feast. People tend to focus on the line from the Letter to Colossians about wives being subordinate to their husbands, or parents and children exchange looks at the line, “Children, obey your parents in everything.” Most of us don’t want to return to the “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” era’s way of defining family relationships, and it can be hard to see past the superficial interpretation we put on these readings.

We tend to be either cynical and dismissive of this feast or we over-idealize the idea of family. People with unpleasant memories of an abusive or dysfunctional childhood resent the notion that all families should be just like Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Paul tells the Colossians to forgive one another, but we know that some people might not yet be at a point in their healing where forgiveness is possible.
When we hear the phrase Holy Family, too often we think of something that’s “holy card” perfect, instead of the deeply sacred, graced-by-God reality of Mary, Joseph and Jesus—but also of our own families, whether those of blood or those intimate communities that sustain us as adults. The scripture readings for the feast keep us grounded in an awareness that God knows that family life is both essential and complex, but always very real.

The Gospel recounts the story of Jospeh being told in a dream to take his wife and infant child to Egypt to save the boy from Herod’s massacre. What Matthew summarizes in a few terse lines after the fact, and with a good dose of Scripture fulfillment built in must have been terrifying for the young family. It brings to mind scenes from the news media of families of refugees fleeing war, genocide and famine.
When we hear of the messages Joseph receives in his dreams, again we imagine the serene scenes portrayed by artists, with the words of the angel twining into Joseph’s ear as he sleeps. But I suspect it has more in common with the young father tossing and turning during the night, caught in the stressful tension between work responsibilities, the insistent nighttime needs of a growing infant in the next room, and the juggling of too many things.

Family responsibilities ebb and flow at different times of our lives. Young family have the concerns of infants and children and all that entails. Parents of teenagers know all too well the particular challenges that brings. But the responsibility of caring for our elders is also a very real part of many people’s lives. At times the two coincide creating what’s become known as the sandwich generation.

One of the most touching lines in the reading from Sirach is, “My son, take care of your father when he he is old;… Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him.” Several friends are among the countless people caring for parents suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. It’s an almost overwhelming responsibility and through even the most difficult times, it’s obvious that they’re doing it because of the great love they have for their parents.

We need to celebrate this feast not as some seemingly unattainable goal for mere humans, but as a sign of the obstacles that we can overcome if we truly place ourselves in the arms of a loving God who is Father and Mother to us all, and in whose sight we are all part of a holy and sacred family.

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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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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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All week in the lectionary we’ve been hearing the story of Abraham. His choice to enter into a covenant with God set the course for the Chosen People. His story is their story—and ours. We are heirs to the promise made to Abraham and the greater promise fulfilled in Christ. The Akedah (the binding of Isaac) has often been read as the story of the Jewish people. And Christian exegetes from the earliest days have seen it as  a type for the passion of Jesus, beginning with the Letter to the Hebrews (11:17-19).  The writers of our Scriptures had a long time to shape the story to reveal the divine truth of complete faith and total trust in God’s promise and plan. But it can also be read on a much more personal level, without detracting from its deeply symbolic significance.

In Wednesday’s reading from Genesis, we saw Abraham struggle to let go of Ishmael when Sarah insisted on banishing Hagar. Having let go of his firstborn, it must have been beyond excruciating to face the test of losing  Isaac as well. The years of waiting for this son, the joy at his birth, the fulfillment of all that God had promised, looked as though it was about to come crashing to an end. And one of the reasons this story resonates so deeply is that parents around the world face this unimaginable pain every day. Losing children to disease, accidents, war, starvation has been a fact of life from the beginning of time. Most parents would  willingly give their own lives for their children, and many have. To ask a parent to sacrifice a child—”take your son, your only son, the one whom you love”—is almost incomprehensible. The story of Abraham and Isaac—like the story of Jesus’ crucifixion—might ultimately be bearable only because we know the end of the story. We know that God’s love wins out over death. We believe that in the end, the promise is fulfilled and good does triumph. Without that, we have nothing but despair.

Let’s bring this idea  a little closer to home.  The big stories give us hope in our darkest hours. But the big stories can teach us something about our  everyday lives as well. Clinging to the people, even the things, that we love is a common human inclination. Learning to let go can take a lifetime. We may never be asked to face the death of a child. But all parents need to let their children live their own lives at some point. And that can be painful in its own way. Later in Genesis, we see Isaac struggle with his own sons, Jacob and Esau. And Jacob will in turn face the tragic loss of his best-loved son Joseph, perhaps because of his own favoritism. The patriarchs are remembered for God’s covenant with them, but even in the midst of their faith, their humanity is never  glossed over.

The Scriptures remind us again and again that others have faced the same struggles we face. And in the end, whether it’s the big letting go of someone we love deeply, a lesser letting go of a long-cherished dream, or something as trivial letting go of our plans for the day because of a change in the weather, what makes it possible is being willing to place ourselves in God’s hands and believe that the divine promise is greater than any of our human desires. If we begin with small things, working our way up to the bigger things in time, we might be ready when it’s time to let go of this life.

While the binding of Isaac was the climactic point of this week’s Genesis stories, it was followed by Sarah’s death in the fullness of time and Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah, reminding us of the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth that is both our human and divine destiny. When we know that we’re part of this story, we can begin to learn its lessons.

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The lectionary readings for this 13th Sunday of the year, at least the first and the third, are linked by the image of a plow. In the reading from Kings, Elijah calls Elisha to follow him by throwing his mantle over his shoulders. Elisha leaves his plow and tells the great prophet, “Let me kiss my father and mother good-bye and I will follow you.” Elijah ignores him. Elisha then slaughters and cooks the oxen, using the plowing equipment for fuel for the fire (the hyperbole here is not likely to escape the original listeners). He feeds his people and then follows Elijah.

For Elisha to simply say farewell to his family wasn’t enough in Elijah’s eyes. He was looking for a total commitment. Elijah never did anything by halves. He comes upon Elisha after the tumultuous rout of the 500 prophets of Baal, a time of near despair in the wilderness, and a theophany in the form of a still, small voice. The successor God has appointed for him better hang onto his hat. He’s in for a wild ride.

Similarly in the gospel, Jesus challenges—almost taunts—those who would follow him, reminding them that he hasn’t even a cave to call home. He has set his course. He’s on the road to Jerusalem, to his destiny. Many have commented on the somewhat enigmatic line, “Let the dead bury the dead” and how strong a command the burial of the dead and honoring of parents was in the Law. What struck me about this passage, though, was the relentless forward movement. Once he’s headed to Jerusalem, Jesus isn’t going to let anything get in his way. And he uses the image of the plow in a way that would also be familiar to his listeners. Something else might be pulling the plow, but it’s the responsibility of the person holding its handles to keep it straight and true.

The two readings together remind me of the better know fish story when Jesus calls Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave their nets because he will make them fishers of men. Here, we see Elisha leaving his plowing equipment to follow Elijah in the prophet’s mission, one that Jesus will describe as a metaphorical furrow.

Maybe it’s where I find my life heading these days, but what I hear in these readings is that God finds a way to use our work to accomplish his work. The Spirit provides the energy, the fuel, the inspiration. Our job is to hold true to our course. And the only way we can do this is by facing forward. Looking back leads only to confusion. Whatever we’ve learned from our experiences, from our families, from our past has brought us to today. The important thing now is to move into the future. It takes a lot to pull us forward. Maybe it’s only the hand of God that can really keep up steady. And so this might be a time to burn our plow, our bridges, anything that holds us back from wholeheartedly embracing the future God has in store for us. And I suspect we’ll be surprised when we find ourselves doing much the same work in a different context with a new goal.

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