Sunday, August 7, 2022

What do you hope for?

Readings: Wisdom 18:6-9; Ps 33:1.12.18-22; Heb 11:1-2.8-19; Luke 12:32-48

"Faith is the realization of what is hoped for..."

What do you hope for?

In accordance with God's promise, Abraham hoped for a son. Eventually, he and Sarah had Isaac. Of course, they waited a long time. They waited so long that they were both well past childbearing and childrearing age when Isaac was conceived and then born. This often seems to be God's way.

One reason for my insistence that not only should hope never be confused with optimism but that hope kicks in when optimism runs out is my experience. It seems to be the case that very often what I work hard at remaining optimistic about never comes to pass. Sometimes it's a big thing and sometimes not. Sometimes it seems like a big thing but in retrospect, the magnitude of its importance diminishes. If the magnitude of importance does not diminish and it still doesn't seem to happen, then perhaps it becomes a hope. Making something a hope means to put it into God's hands, trusting God. Hope is trust, not wishing. This why faith is hope realized. Abraham and Sarah show us this quite clearly.

Something can only become a matter of hope when judged in the light of ultimate things and found deserving. I don't know about you, but I spend a lot of time worrying about and working for things that don't bear up under the light of the ultimate.

Saint by the Sea Parish, Rockaway Beach, Oregon- where I went to Mass today- photo mine

Our Gospel today is about ultimate things. What we are given is to be used appropriately. As out of style as such a belief may be, I believe there will be an ultimate accounting. I can't evade or avoid the fact that I have been given much. How much of what I have been given have I, in turn, given, put to good use, or at least kept in proper perspective?

As belief in anything beyond death fades, our perspectives change. The ephemeral can become the ultimate. As today's Gospel demonstrates, Jesus came to free us from our fascination with nothingness. While it is a horizon over which I cannot see, I don't believe death is the ultimate.

Fascination with nothingness, not religious faith, strikes me as the opiate of the masses now.

Faith poses a lot of questions, more questions than it answers. Maybe the most basic question is Does life have a transcendent meaning? Stated slightly less philosophically- Does your life have a meaning beyond itself? There are two equally silly answers to this question- This world is not my home/I'm justa passin' through/My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue and This world is my home/But I'm still just passin' through/Like everyone else I'll wind up buried in the goo. Worse yet, preserved, hermetically sealed and placed in the ground. These are not Christian eschatologies, that is, Christian views of human destiny.

In accordance with God's promise, what do you hope for?

Friday, August 5, 2022

Lifting burdens; lightening loads

It's August. Wow. This post finds me on the beautiful Oregon coast. I am enjoying a rare vacation with my family. The beauty of this place almost overwhelms me.

I awoke this morning with this on my mind as a full-formed sentence: Being a Christian is not about toeing some imaginary line. It's about realizing that you are loved and, in light of that reality, to love in like manner.

Like all genuine spiritual truths, this is simple to grasp and hard to actually live. I can call these "spiritual truths" because they don't originate with me.

I was struck by this, taken from the reading for Morning Prayer Week II of Psalter:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it (Ephesians 2:13-16)
It strikes me as a very human thing to place burdens on others. Jesus speaks often about people who lay heavy burdens on others and do nothing to lighten their load.

Not big thoughts but big enough for this vacation Friday.

Because it's summer. Because I am on vacation. Because I love the Go-Go's. Our traditio today is "Vacation." Yeah, I know it's a song about being on vacation away from your crush or whatever. But, hey, I like it.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Year C Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Eccl 1:2.2:21-23; Ps 90:3-6.12-14.17; Col 3:1-5.9-11; Luke 12:13-21

“For you have died.”1 This statement from Colossians constitutes the heart of today’s readings. But before writing this, the inspired author began by writing “If then you were raised with Christ.”2 You died and rose with Christ when you were baptized.

Dying and rising with Christ should make all the difference in the world in how you live. Qoheleth, which means something like “preacher,” is right in his insistence that life can all too easily become vanity. A vain person is someone who is always preoccupied with him/herself.

Someone who is vain worries about how he looks, how she dresses, the kind of car they drive, the house in which they live, the kind of shoes they wear, what cell phone they have, etc. It’s a life of appearance, not substance. In case you haven’t noticed, vain people are very thin-skinned, possessing fragile egos. They are easily shaken, especially when someone or something pokes a hole in the wall of her/his appearance and reality leaks out.

In his poem The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot wrote that the hollow men are “Shape without form, shade without color; Paralysed force, gesture without motion.”3 To be concerned only about yourself, to make acquiring things and getting ahead the focus of your life is to be a hollow person indeed.

I recently watched a short video featuring former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.4 In the video he is talking to two or three younger guys. He tells them that the three years he spent in prison were the best years of his life. The young guys seemed surprised by this. One of them was bold enough to challenge him, saying- “That’s interesting for you to say that, bro., because you had millions.”

Iron Mike responds by saying that in prison he had peace. His young interlocutor says, “Yeah, but thirty million dollars for one fight…” Tyson gently answers by saying, “Hey listen, can I tell you something? That don’t mean nuthin’ when you don’t have your peace, your stability, and your balance.” He ended by telling them, “Cuz,’ you know, God… punishes you by giving you everything you want. See if you can handle it.”

How different is that from the idea that wealth and riches are God’s blessing? Jesus makes clear throughout all four Gospels that wealth and riches, while not inherently bad (it depends on how you use them), are often the biggest obstacles for someone in terms of her/his salvation. He certainly does this in today’s Gospel. The subject of his parable was content to hoard his wealth. His death on the very night he was making plans to store up his wealth shows, irrefutably, from the very mouth of God, what a terrible plan that is!

One person who will never be impressed with how successful you are, how much money you make, how big your house is, what kind of clothes you wear, what gadgets you possess, or what kind of car you drive is Jesus Christ. In our second reading from Colossians, among the things those who have died and risen with Christ need to “put to death” is “the greed that is idolatry.”5

Christ will ask, What did you do for the least of these? Especially if you enjoyed an abundance, if you draw a blank or are unable to come up with much, you’ll quickly realize that the pursuit and love of wealth, commonly known as “greed,” which is one of the seven deadly sins, far from being a blessing, is a curse for you. Be like Mike. Learn that lesson now. Be rich in the things that matter to God.

In 1 Timothy, we learn “the love of money is the root of all evils.”6 The passage in which this verse occurs ends by noting that the lure of riches has led many, even in the very early Church, to abandon the faith. It’s no great surprise that economists can empirically show that where wealth increases beyond a certain point, religious faith and practice decline. Like the man in Jesus’ parable, we’re prone to thinking “I got this. No need for God.”

What matters to God is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, and visiting those who are sick and in prison. As Catholics, we group these teachings of Jesus together and call them the corporal works of mercy. What matters to God, as the prophets reminded Israel over and over, is looking out for the widow and the orphan, taking care of the stranger in their midst.

Sometimes helping others makes you feel good. This usually happens when the person you’re helping expresses gratitude for your assistance. But what about when no gratitude is expressed? Does the person need your help less ? Does s/he not deserve your help? In other words, sometimes helping others doesn’t make you feel good.

Let’s be honest, it’s almost always an inconvenience to help someone in need. It is often the case that the very act of taking time and making the effort to help makes you aware of just how needy that person is. Extrapolating from that, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how much genuine need there is, not in the world, but just in your own community.

The word "poor" does not appear in today's readings. It does appear in the Gospel acclamation, which is from the Beatitudes in Matthew.7 There can be little doubt that what makes one rich in what matters to God is assisting those who are materially poor. This is especially incumbent on those who are rich (i.e., those who possess way more than they need).

The Greek word translated as “poor” in our acclamation is ptōchos. While ptōchos can and probably to some extent does refer to people without position, honor, or influence, that is, those without power, it does so only secondarily. The primary meaning of ptōchos is those who are destitute and reduced to begging.

When the weight of human need seems crushing, it’s useful to keep in mind Mother Teresa’s motto: “Do small things with great love.”8 Do this consistently, maybe daily or weekly. It will make you rich in the things that matter to God. Remember, you haven’t just died with Christ; you’ve risen with him. Because of this, you trust God, even when you realize how much the immensity of need overshadows your small efforts. Because you're born again, you trust in God even when the world seems like a hot mess.

1 Colossians 3:3.
2 Colossians 3:1.
3 T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men.
4 Instagram.
5 Colossians 3:5.
6 1 Timothy 6:10.
7 Matthew 5:3.
8 America magazine, “Mother Teresa: ‘Do small things with great love.’”

Friday, July 29, 2022

"As faith gives place to sight"

For those who were so eager to defend Martha the Sunday before last, today is the day. It is the Memorial of Saints Martha, Mary, & Lazarus. These three are siblings. According to the Gospels, they lived in Bethany and were very close to Jesus. They dearly loved Jesus and he loved them. Even his rebuke to Martha when she complained about Mary just sitting at Jesus' feet strikes me as rather a gentle reproof.

It was Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead. What is striking about that episode from Saint John's Gospel is how sad the Lord was that his friend was dead. He wept. Death is sad. While especially now this view no doubt seems eccentric to many, I don't agree that death is natural. We weren't born to die. This is why Christ came. To redeem us from the power of death.

Standing before the grave of her brother, Jesus tells a grieving Martha "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." These are bold words. These are the kind of things Jesus says that caused C.S. Lewis to insist that you can't really just accept Jesus as a great moral teacher. Something like what Jesus says to Martha is true or he is delusional, perhaps even a religious charlatan. Jesus poses the same question to us he posed to Martha: "Do you believe this?" (See John 11:1-44)

I can say, with Martha, "Yes Lord, I believe." Believing something does not make it true. I'll venture to say most of us hold false beliefs about any number of things. I believe what Jesus says about himself and about life after death. You know, I could be wrong.

Instead of Evening Prayer, I prayed Night Prayer last night. To kick it off, I sang my favorite Night Prayer hymn: "Now Fades All Earthly Splendor." The last verse moves me deeply:
So will the new creation
Rise from the old reborn
To splendor in Christ's glory
And evelasting morn All darkness will be ended
As faith gives place to sight
I did a committal service today. It was one of those where I did not know the person who died and had never met his family. It's always a little weird to enter these kinds of situations. It is a great privilege and a holy honor to share this vulnerable moment with a grieving family. At least for me, the key is to tread lightly.

Neither the deceased nor any of his surviving family members were Catholic. But after the graveside eulogies, they wanted to commend the soul of their beloved brother and uncle to God.

In my very brief remarks, which come at the very beginning of the Rite of Committal, I mentioned that standing at the graveside of a loved one is a little like standing at the end of the world. From that vantage point, we can look back and have something like a panoramic view, even if for a brief time, of the life of the deceased, which is now all too evidently over. But it's a good perspective from which to take a good look at ourselves, at our lives.

As impossible as such a reunion may seem at that moment, virtually everyone deeply longs to see their loved one again. To meet them somewhere beyond the end of the world, in a better place. A place free from illness and strife. Somewhere there is no death. This desire, it seems to me, is shared even by those who don't believe, especially by those who, for many reasons, often valid, are unable to believe.

Getting back to Martha- she believed, as I believe, that Jesus is "the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Could I be wrong? Sure. But you know what, even if I am wrong, I can't think of a better way to live life than trying to follow Jesus, stumbling disciple I am. At the end of the day, it isn't about vindicating my belief. It isn't even about indulging in wishful fantasies. It's about believing in Jesus Christ. I have no desire to look at anyone and brag, "I told you so!" Rather, having encountered Jesus, as Philip said to Nathanael, I want to say, "Come and see" (See John 1:35-51).

While I could not find a very good recording of it, "Now Fades All Earthly Splendor" is our Friday traditio.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Feast of Saint James, Apostle

Readings: 2 Cor 4:7-15; Ps 126:1-6; Matthew 20:20-28

Today the Church throughout the world observes the Feast of Saint James, the Apostle. Along with John, James is the son of Zebedee, a Galilean fisherman. James and John both dropped their nets, left their father, and followed Jesus when he called them.

Their response to Jesus’ call is nothing short of radical. They literally dropped everything and followed him. One can only imagine what went through Zebedee’s mind when his sons did this.

In Mark’s Gospel and only in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus refers to James and John as Boanerges, which translates into “sons of thunder.” Remember, several weeks ago in our Sunday Gospel reading, it was James and John who wanted to call down fire upon the Samaritan village that refused to welcome Jesus and his band of Galilean Jews.1

Along with Peter, in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke), James and John seem to occupy a special place even among the twelve. It is Peter, James, and John who go up the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus. These same three are with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.

Saint James, the Apostle is also known as James the Greater. He is called this to distinguish him from another member of the twelve- James, the son of Alphaeus- as well as James the Just, whom the scriptures call the “brother of Jesus,” leader of the primitive Church in Jerusalem and author of the Letter of James.2 There are so many Jameses in the New Testament that it’s difficult to keep them straight!

We wear red today because James, the brother of John and son of Zebedee was a martyr. Like the deacon Saint Stephen, who was the first Christian martyr, James’ martyrdom is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. There we learn that Herod “had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword.”3

The Herod referred to in this verse from Acts is Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great. Known simply as “Agrippa,” he ruled Judea, which included the holy city of Jerusalem, from AD 41-44. James’ beheading is dated to the final year of his short rule. A time during which he persecuted the nascent Church of Christ. It was Agrippa who imprisoned Peter and before whom Paul was arraigned.4

In today’s Gospel James’ mother asks Jesus to permit her sons to rule on his left and his right when God’s Kingdom is fully established. Jesus first responds by asking if James and John can endure what he will endure, before indocating that they, too, will be put through the olive press, which is what Gethsemane means.

Above all, Jesus insists that authority in the Kingdom of God is gained in a way that utterly contradicts how one gains worldly power. It is not enough for the greatest in God’s Kingdom to be a servant, a diakonos. According to Jesus, one such must be a slave, a doulos.

Think of Christ not just undergoing an excruciatingly painful death on the cross, but being mercilessly taunted as he dies. According to Luke Timothy Johnson, “the one who dispossesses all- indeed coming to the point of being dispossessed himself – comes to possess, in the end, all things as Lord.”5 The impact of this theo-logic is clear: by his self-emptying, his dispossession and being dispossessed, Jesus not only provides a model for Christian discipleship and fellowship but demonstrates “the how” of Christian leadership.

A slave, a doulos, is a servant who is purchased instead of hired. When Paul, for example, refers to himself as “a slave of Christ Jesus,” which he follows by mentioning his apostolic vocation, he acknowledges that, through Christ, he is a slave because he was purchased at a price.6

While there is an office for servant in the Church, the diaconate, there is no specific office for slave. Being a slave to Christ is the Christian vocation no matter one’s state of life. But it remains for us to choose. Such a choice cannot be coerced. “For you have been purchased at a price,” Paul reminded the Church in ancient Corinth. “Therefore,” he continued, “glorify God in your body.”7

Considering Christ’s humiliating death, it is interesting to consider an often-overlooked verse. This verse immediately follows the last verse of our reading from Colossians yesterday. The point of that reading is that by his cross, Christ removed the judgment against us. By this, the inspired author of Colossians continues, Christ plundered “the principalities and the powers,” making “a public spectacle of them,” and “leading them away in triumph by it.”8

Christian martyrdom follows this dynamic. What looks like humiliation, a tragedy in worldly terms, is really a glorious triumph for the Kingdom of God. The message of martyrdom is that you rise by lowering yourself. You win by losing. You live by dying. Ultimately, James drank from the cup to which Jesus referred. More importantly, he no doubt came to understand that you save your life by giving it away for the sake of the Gospel.

What else can Saint Paul be referring to in our first reading, when he writes:
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body9
We do this, as Paul goes on to note: “Knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and place us with you in his presence.”10

1 Luke 9:52-55.
2 Matthew 13:55.
3 Acts 12:2.
4 Acts 12:3; Acts 25:13-26:32.
5 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, 375.
6 See Romans 1:1 & Philippians 1:1.
7 1 Corinthians 6:20.
8 Colossians 2:15.
9 2 Corinthians 4:8-10.
10 2 Corinthians 4:14.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Abraham's petition and ours

Readings: Gen 18:20-32; Ps 138:1-3.6-8; Col 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13

Did Abraham give up too soon? Maybe. Whether he did or not isn't the point of the episode from Genesis. We should take a lesson from father Abraham's humility and boldness- the two are not polar opposites.

It's remiss not to point out that God saved humanity for the sake of one righteous person: Jesus Christ.

I know that writing about salvation so succinctly can, understandably, set off some theological alarm bells. Nonetheless, I am going to state it that way. The other day I was thinking about Penal Substitutionary Atonement. It seems to me that what people, rightly, object to in that phrase is the word "penal." After all, God did not create us, any of us, in order to damn or destroy us. Far from it. But the substitutionary aspect of the cross of Christ cannot be denied. How else would you explain this, written by Saint Paul: "But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us"? (Romans 5:8)

I think our reading from Colossians helps. By his cross, Jesus obliterated "the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us." While not likely an authentically Pauline letter, Colossians, unlike certain parts of, say, Ephesians, is theologically quite Pauline. Our passage today indicates this by alluding to the Law. Paul's take on the Law is that the Law primarily exists to show us how we don't measure up. How we fail to love God and neighbor. How difficult it often is for me to even recognize who my neighbor is. Only one person met the measure of the Law: Jesus Christ. This was enough for God, whose name is mercy.

The Greek word translated in our Gospel reading as "wicked" is the plural form of πονηρός. πονηρός transliterated is poneros. Its primary meaning is something like to be pressed and harassed by toils and labors. While this word can be used to indicate evil, such a meaning, while not tangential exactly, is marginal- terciary. If not meant in the latter sense (i.e., evil), what Jesus is saying is that if you who are busy, burdened, weighed down by life, in a word, harried, "know how to give good gifts to your children," how much more is God, our Father, able and willing to give you, not just good things, but his very self in the person of the Holy Spirit, if you but ask? Here's the Good News: through Jesus Christ, God is for us and with us!

This is the second week in a row that our Gospel focuses not on the importance of prayer but its utter necessity. As Romano Guardini observed: prayer for a Christian is like breathing. His point is that if you stop breathing, you die. Note that Jesus here is not saying that God is like your magic genie, for whom your wish is his command. What you ask for matters. A popular evangelist once asserted that God hears and answers every prayer. According to his account, God's answers fall into three categories: Yes - No - Slow.

As Luke presents it, this teaching on prayer seems equivocal. What do I mean? With his illustration of the midnight visitor, he starts by talking about petitionary prayer- asking God for something, either for yourself or someone else. If you think about it, what Jesus says does not lack humor. If God won't grant your petition because he's favorably disposed toward you, he'll grant it on account of you persistently bugging him about it. This is not the only time in the Gospels Jesus makes this same point.

When praying for a specific intention, you must persist. In my experience, this persistence refines what you're praying for, helps you to clarify not only what you're asking God to do, but what your role is in what you bring before him. It may even help you simplify and really know what it is you seek, what it is you hope for. Circling back to Guardini's insistence on the vital necessity of prayer, "Spirit" means breath. Jesus urges us to ask the Father for life, real life.

Following his parable, Jesus concludes by teaching that what we should always want is more God. It's difficult to write something like that because it sounds so damn pious. But I mean it more in the sense of finding God in all things; all things. This is what it means to to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Along these lines, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, referring to Bach’s dedication of his Orgelbüchlein (“To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbour may be benefited thereby”), said that what Bach wrote in dedicating his book is what he would like to say about his own philosophical work. This comes to close to what I mean by desiring more God.

For most of us, desiring more God means less self. Maybe I'm projecting, but it's easy to underestimate the difficulty of this trade-off.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Women of faith for a Friday

Nothing exceeds like excess, or so it has been said. Since my break in June, I've been quite prolific. To is the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalen is the patroness of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. I am glad Pope Francis elevated her feast to a Universal Feast. Even though I am no longer assigned to the Cathedral of the Madeleine, I still observe today as a Solemnity. Since it's Friday...

Speaking of women of faith, it was announced this week that Amy Grant will be a Kennedy Center Honoree. She is the first Contemporary Christian music artist to been chosen for this honor, which is given to five people annually. This is the 45th year Kennedy Center honors have been bestowed.

I have been listening to Amy Grant since the late '80s. I remember buying her Straight Ahead and Lead Me On albums on cassette upon their release. There are way too many of Amy's songs I could post as our traditio for this Friday. I'm going with one, "Where Do You Hide Your Heart?", that mean a lot to me. It means a lot because, like most songs we tend to love, it speaks into and seemingly out of my experience.

O God,
whose Only Begotten Son
entrusted Mary Magdalene before all others
with announcing the great joy of the Resurrection,
grant, we pray, that through her intercession
and example we may proclaim the living Christ
and come to see him reigning in your glory
Saint Mary Magdalene, myrophore & apostula apostulorum, on this your feast day, pray for us!

What do you hope for?

Readings: Wisdom 18:6-9; Ps 33:1.12.18-22; Heb 11:1-2.8-19; Luke 12:32-48 "Faith is the realization of what is hoped for..." ...