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In Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, 12-year-old Meg Murry sets off with her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, and her best friend, Calvin O’Keefe, to find her father, who disappeared into space several years before. A trio of supernatural beings, manifested as eccentric old women known only as Mrs Who, Mrs Which and Mrs Whatsit, guide them on their quest, offering them gifts—graces—unique to each individuals gifts and strengths. Before the final and most difficult task, Mrs Who, who arranges her thoughts mostly in quotations, tells Meg, “What I have to give you this time you must try to understand not word by word but in a flash.” And she goes on to quote the marvelous passage from Paul that we hear in today’s second reading: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and the God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.” Though Meg doesn’t realize it at the time, she discovers that this is a promise of great strength in time of need. In the end, love proves to be more powerful than anything her adversary wields.

We know all too well that the way of our world is too often the powerful crushing the weak and defenseless without giving it a thought. But in reflecting on Paul’s words, I’m reminded of several examples of celebrities who make a point of using their status to help the less fortunate. The Irish rock star Bono has traded on his fame to speak tirelessly to the most powerful leaders of the world, working to persuade them to hear the cries of the poorest of the poor in Africa. He said in one talk, “God is with the poor, my friends, and he is with us when we are with them.”

Legendary Green Bay Packer quarterback Bret Favre was honored by the Make-A-Wish Foundation for the many times he and other members of the team had met with seriously ill children. During the presentation, a little girl named Anna moved him to tears. He pointed out that it wasn’t anything extraordinary that made him support this cause, just the way he had been raised to care about those less fortunate.

Late-night comedian Stephen Colbert often spends time on his breaks and vacations supporting a wide variety of worthy causes. By using the draw of his popularity, he can generate more interest and donations for those in need. These are just a few examples of people who know that their fame and fortune is fleeting and that because they have been fortunate, they have a special responsibility to those who have been less fortunate.

We who have been blessed with so much are called upon to give to others. The God revealed in the Scriptures has always been on the side of the least, the lowly, the poor, the powerless. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us of this truth about his Father: Blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. These are the people who know the limits of their own strength. Above all they are people who know their need for God. Whatever earthly influence we may or may not have, blessed are we when we realize that the greatest thing we can do with what we have is to give is as generously as God’s grace has been given to us.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

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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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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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Counting the Cost?

I have a magnet on my refrigerator with a quotation attributed to Goethe: “What you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” It turns out that this isn’t exactly something the great German writer said, and it has its misty origins in Faust, the classic story of the man who sold his soul to the devil. Nevertheless, it has a lot to do with the way I approach the most significant choices in my life. It drives the more careful planners among my family and friends to distraction. They tend to be much more the ones who can identify with the examples Jesus gives in today’s Gospel.

He tells the great crowd gathered around him that they need to be willing to carry a heavy cross if they’re going to continue to follow him. He’s laying out the consequences for those who need to know the cost of something before they begin. The planners, the strategists, the cautious ones are the one who nod knowingly at the stories of the builder left with an unfinished tower or the commander facing impossible odds on the battlefield.

I can understand these examples, but I’m more likely to follow the Victorian architects who regularly designed “follies” on great estates: intentional ruins, unfinished structures, stairs going nowhere. Or the romantic stories of commanders like Henry V, taking on the French army with a ragtag band of loyal followers.

Jesus realistically reminds his followers that if they can’t bear the idea of the cross, they’ll never be able to bear the real thing. And bear it they must. He’s asking nothing less than everything. But at some point following Jesus is still a glorious leap of faith. I think that perhaps what Jesus was doing was less telling them to make a rational, calculated decision than simply warning them that the going was going to get a lot rougher than they imagined. He didn’t want them to follow him blindly, to delude themselves with dreams of easy victory and earthly triumph. It reminds me a bit of the times my parents would caution me about doing something reckless and then saying, “If you get hurt, don’t come crying to me.” I knew they were exasperated (often with good reason) but I also knew that they’d be there to pick me up.

Counting the cost isn’t always the best way to approach our lives. How often have you heard someone say, “If I had known what the outcome would be, I never would have started.” And yet they’re not sorry they did. When they look back, they see that somehow through God’s grace they found the strength to keep going, to see something through, to discover the new life on the other side of the abyss.

The goal of following Jesus is not a profitable corporation, a successful military campaign or a well-constructed building. The goal is the resurrection won by his victory over death, a victory that was far more of a high-stakes gamble that a well-oiled machine. The cost of following Jesus can’t be calculated in a spreadsheet and amortized over time. But the retirement plan is, as the bumper sticker says, “out of this world.”

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One of my all-time favorite authors passed away today and I’m struck by how sad I am, even knowing that she had a long, full, creative life. Madeleine L’Engle is known primarily for her children’s novels, particularly the Newberry Award winning A Wrinkle in Time. The first one I ever read was its sequel, A Wind in the Door. I was probably 10 or 11. I find myself remembering small bookstores where I found new books as they came out or discovered some that had been out for a number of years. Her adult novels are somewhat difficult to find, and I just taped the cover back on my mass market paperback of The Other Side of the Sun. A compulsive re-reader, I return to her books at different times of the year or different moods. Some I think I know almost by heart.

Her books explore the deep questions of life, of faith, of relationships. A lifelong Episcopalian, she never hesitated to take on the challenging aspects of religion and Christianity.  They also offer a fascinating look at the creative life, the struggle of artists to be true to their vision, but also the art and creativity that underlies the work of the best scientists.

Here are a couple of links: a story from St. Anthony Messenger and an interview with Newsweek that has some great insights into the Bible and Christianity.

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