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Palm Sunday Homily: Parish Renewal Inspired by Pope Francis

Jesus Christ Superstar

Holy Week begins today with Palm Sunday. Fittingly, last evening my wife and I attended a splendid Berea College production of Webber and Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The familiar score and story had me tearing from the overture on.

Of course, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a brilliant musical that captures the final events in Jesus’ life. As in today’s liturgical readings, the play takes us from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to his cleansing of the city’s Temple, his betrayal by Judas, his trials before the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod. It finishes with his death on the cross and a reprise of Judas’ questions about Jesus’ place in history and among the world’s other spiritual geniuses.

Through it all we agonize with Judas about accepting blood money and with Mary Magdalene about her unrequited love. We shake our heads at Jesus’ uncomprehending, self-interested and cowardly disciples. We’re amazed at the fickleness of the crowd and by Jesus’ compassion, indecision, fear of death, and forgiveness of his executioners.

The rock musical score is haunting. The lyrics are hip and inspiring. I found it amazing that the story though repeated so often retains the power to move its audiences. I felt grateful to Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice for their audacity in making the tale so accessible and meaningful to contemporaries.

Similar feelings have been evoked this Lent by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” That too was on my mind as I watched “Jesus Christ Superstar.” That’s because during this year’s Lent, members of my parish community have been studying the pope’s publication.

Through it, I think Pope Francis is calling us to do something like what Webber and Rice have done – make Jesus and the church once again relevant to a world that has long since dismissed them as quaint and detached from daily life.

As we’ve studied “The Joy of the Gospel,” all of us have marveled at Francis’ own courage, boldness and audacity. Almost from the beginning, our group has asked each other, “But what should we do in this parish in response to the pope’s general directions?”

At Lent’s conclusion, I suggest we reprise that question. So I’ve put together a proposal about responding to “The Joy of the Gospel” in the context of our Berea Kentucky parish, St. Clare’s Catholic Church. Think of it as a kind of capstone to the Lenten reflections I’ve shared here over the last six weeks. Then tell me what you think of it. Is it feasible? Is it relevant? What else or instead might we do?

Here’s the modest proposal.

Towards a Program for Implementing Pope Francis’ Directions for Parish Renewal at St. Clare’s

Whereas,
- In his Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (JG), Pope Francis has called for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the church to embark on a “new path” (JG 1, 25),

- On which things cannot be left as they presently are, (25)

- But must include new ways of relating to God, new narratives and new paradigms (74),

- Along with new customs, ways of doing things, times, schedules, and language (27),

- With emphasis on better prepared and delivered homilies (135-159),

- And expanded roles for women who are recognized as generally more sensitive, intuitive, and otherwise skilled than men (103, 104),

- Along with outreach to Christians of other denominations who share unity with Catholics on many fronts (246)

And whereas
- The pope identifies the struggle for social justice and participation in political life as “a moral obligation” that is “inescapable” (220, 258),

- And sees “each and every human right” [including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage (192)] as intimately connected with “defense of unborn life” (213),

- While completely rejecting war as incapable of combatting violence which is caused by “exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples” (59),

- And by unfettered markets and their “trickle-down” ideologies which are homicidal (53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59),

And whereas,
- The pope’s call to change is addressed to everyone (not primarily to pastors and bishops) (33),

- And since responses must be governed by the principle of decentralization (16, 32),

- And are (under this principle) to issue mainly from parishes (not in Rome or the diocesan chancery) because of parishes’ highly flexible character and sensitivity to the needs of the local people (28),

- Whose inventiveness is limited by little more than the openness and creativity of the pastor and the local community (28),

- Who are instructed to act boldly, and without inhibition or fear (33),

- In implementing processes of reform (30) adapted to particular churches (82),

- Whose initiatives are to be respected by local bishops (31),

IT SEEMS NOT ONLY FITTING BUT IMPERATIVE THAT THE PARISH OF ST. CLARE ANSWER THE POPE’S CALL, ASSERT ITS LAY LEADERSHIP AND ADOPT THE FOLLOWING MEASURES OF REFORM.

* On the first weekend of September 2014, sponsor a three-evening “Tent Revival” on the front lawn of St. Clare’s church – focusing on “The Joy of the Gospel,” under the leadership of an invited speaker like Matthew Fox.

* Following the revival, assign to all parish members the reading of Pope Francis’ “The Joy of the Gospel.”

* Move the time of the main Sunday Mass from 9:00 to 10:00 to enable parishioners to attend a weekly “Sunday School” (from 9:00-9:50) at which the pope’s Exhortation will be discussed.

* Move the weekly “Spanish Mass” from 11:00 to 12:00 to make room for the new Sunday school initiative.

* Take advantage of the uniqueness of St. Clare parish with its presence of several former women religious, at least three ordained priests (in addition to the pastor), theologians, artists, musicians, scholars, and activists.

* Within that context, somehow “call out” the charisms present within the parish and brainstorm with those involved about employing their gifts to renew parish life.

* In accordance with the recognition of special giftedness of the St. Clare community, change customs around Sunday homilies by establishing a rotating schedule involving our parish’s trained homilists (especially women) – and including the pastor – to preach at Sunday Masses.

* Instruct homilists to relate their 2014-2015 homilies not only to the Sunday readings, but to “The Joy of the Gospel.”

* Instruct homilists as well to include in any treatment of the abortion issue, complementary calls to resist war, capital punishment, free market policies that cause world hunger, cut-backs in social services, etc.

* At election time, develop and distribute “voting guides” evaluating candidates on the basis of Pope Francis’ criteria of the inter-connectedness of all human rights, rejection of war, unequal distribution of wealth, and defense of unregulated markets.

* Institute and prominently advertise a parish counseling service to dissuade young people from entering the armed forces.

* Plan a large group trip to the fall 2014 “Call to Action” Conference including the pastor.

* On return from the “Call to Action Conference,” devote at least one “Sunday School” session to presentations about the conference.

* On an experimental basis in lay leadership, ecumenism and in changing paradigms of worship and ways of relating to God with new narratives and paradigms, sponsor a once-per-month lay-led ecumenical communion service paraliturgy. This would feature bold experiments in music, dance, and forms of prayer. It would take place at 3:00 Sunday afternoons in addition to and/or as a substitute for attendance at Sunday’s new 10:00 Mass.

* Insert prominently in our parish bulletin and in all official parish publications, the following statement of inclusivity. “All Are Welcome: In keeping with the inclusivity of the Christian tradition as emphasized in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” with its emphasis on the dignity and worth of all people, St. Clare’s parish values and embraces diversity. Employment, membership, and participation in any church activity are open to all without regard to ethnicity, race, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability or religion. (This is a slightly modified version of the statement of inclusivity of Berea’s Union Church.)

* Begin planning for and implementing all of this immediately assigning target dates to particular items above and those to be added subsequently.

* Revise or re-create a statement like this “Proposal for Renewal” to present in written and oral form to our diocese’s new bishop on the occasion of his first visit to St. Clare’s parish.

So what do you think?

Sunday Homily: “Lazarus come forth!” Pope Francis Brings Jesus Back to Life

Lazarus

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent: EZ 37: 12-14; PS 130: 1-8; ROM 8:8-11; JN 11: 1-45 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/040614.cfm

A few weeks ago, Fortune Magazine identified Pope Francis as first among the World’s “Fifty Best Leaders.” President Obama did not even make the list. Bono and President Clinton were among the top ten.

Whatever the magazine’s reasons for selecting the pope, it’s clear that the “Francis Effect,” is real. Seventy-seven percent of Catholics say they have increased their church donations since the new pope took office. Francis has brought the Catholic Church back from the dead. More importantly, he has returned to life the Jesus of the gospels whom conservatives have long since hijacked and buried – the very one our world’s poor majority needs as never before.

That’s relevant this fifth Sunday of Lent where our readings have Ezekiel coining the highly political metaphor of God’s “raising the dead” to refer to Israel’s impending liberation from its own despair during its Babylonian Captivity. Ezekiel’s metaphor reappears in today’s gospel reading where John the evangelist’s presents his familiar parable about Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave where Jesus’ friend lay moldering for more than three days.

Consider the hopelessness of Ezekiel’s Israel. His sixth century was the saddest of times – the era of his nation’s Great Exile. The Hebrews had been defeated and humiliated by Babylon (modern day Iraq). Its leaders and a large portion of its populace had been abducted to that enemy state. The exiles felt as if they had been slaughtered culturally. They were far from home, controlled by foreign masters, and apparently abandoned by God.

But the prophet Ezekiel did not share his people’s general despair. So in an effort to regenerate hope, he coined the idea of resurrection. Ezekiel loved that concept. [Recall his Vision of Dry Bones (EZ 7: 1-14).] For Ezekiel resurrection was a political metaphor that promised a new vital future despite appearances to the contrary. Israel, he said, would be liberated from Babylon, return home and experience rebirth. They would come back to life.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG), Pope Francis embraces not only Ezekiel’s spirit, but that of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. To repeat, he actually revivifies Jesus and the Gospel. The pope does so by rescuing them both from conservative forces whose version of Christianity has held center stage for the last 35 years. It’s the version, the pope strongly implies, that has metaphorically killed the Jesus of the Gospels, who proclaimed the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom which belongs to the poor, not to the rich whom the conservatives prioritize.

Like Ezekiel, Jesus made his proclamation when all appearances indicated that Israel was dead. It was entirely under the heel of Roman jackboots and there seemed no escape. Yet Jesus described a horizon of hope that enlivened the spirits of the poor who were crushed by the Romans and by their rich Jewish collaborators who headed the temple establishment.

In such dire straits, Jesus proclaimed a new future where everything would be turned upside down. He said audacious things. In God’s realm, he insisted, the poor would be in charge. The last would be first, and the first would be last. The rich would be poor and the poor would be well–fed and prosperous. The powerless and gentle would have the earth for their possession. Jesus’ unemployed and famished audiences couldn’t hear enough of that!

So he elaborated. He told parable after parable – all about the kingdom and its unstoppable power. It was like leaven in bread – unseen but universally active and transforming. It was like the mustard seed – a weed that sprouted up everywhere impervious to eradication efforts. It was like a precious pearl discovered in the ash bin – like a coin a poor woman loses and then rediscovers. His metaphors, similes and parables were powerful.

To repeat, Pope Francis strongly implies that socio-economic conservatism has murdered the Jesus I’ve just described. It has done so by its “preferential option for the rich.” It embraces free-market capitalism, trickle-down theory, and cut-backs in health care, education, and anti-poverty programs. Conservatives complement such horrors with huge tax-breaks for the country’s 1%. All of this is was chillingly represented last week by “devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan whose budget promised to sock it to the poor and middle class, while enriching military industrialists along with his affluent friends.

The Joy of the Gospel makes it clear that no one can support policies like Ryan’s and claim at the same time to be a follower of Jesus.

In other words, Ryan and the pope are on completely different pages. While conservatives have buried the Gospel Jesus, Pope Francis calls him back to life. He stands before Jesus’ grave and shouts “Come Forth!” Even Fortune Magazine recognizes the resulting miracle.

Consider the Pope’s anti-conservative incantation that brings Jesus back to life. It runs like this:

• Wealth does not belong to the rich, but to the world’s poor (JG 57, 184).

• But the world economy as now structured concentrates wealth among an ever-shrinking minority of the rich (56).

• Wealth must therefore be redistributed (189, 204,215).

• Such redistribution must take place by government intervention in the free market, which (in contradiction to failed “trickle-down” theory) cannot by itself eliminate poverty (54).

• The rich who are unwilling to redistribute wealth to its true owners (the poor) are thieves (57, 189).

• More than that, they are murderers, since the world economy as presently configured is homicidal (58).

• This is a question of being pro-life (213).

• Favoring life certainly includes concern for the unborn (213).

• But “. . . defense of the unborn is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right” (213).

• Human rights include the right to food and shelter, education, health care, employment , and a just wage (191, 192)

• Respecting human rights involves renunciation of war and preparation for war (60).

• It also connects with environmental stewardship – defense of soil, insects, birds, fish, and the seas (215).

And so the tomb opens. And a Jesus who has been buried more than three decades stumbles out. And in doing so, he renews the faith of so many of us who had given up on the church.

Our faith is renewed because we recognize in Francis’ Jesus the embodiment of one of life’s fundamental truths: utopian visions of the good and true and beautiful can never be killed, even though they might appear lifeless and be pronounced dead by those who once loved them.

What should we do as a result of encountering the Jesus Francis has resurrected?

• Be bold in appropriating the vision of Pope Francis that is not at all idiosyncratic within the Catholic tradition. In fact, it represents the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church from Leo XIII to Vatican II and was even articulated by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

• Accordingly and courageously incorporate into progressive political discourse the language and powerful ideas of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It can move people today just as it did in the times of Ezekiel and Jesus.

• Join Francis in refusing to cede the field of religion to the reactionary forces of neo-liberal conservatism.

• Expose that conservatism for the destructive fraud it is.

• More particularly, expose Paul Ryan and other Bible thumping Republicans as the heretics they are as they defend the interests of the rich and starve the poor in the name of the Gospel.

• Insist that our pastors get on board with Pope Francis in universalizing his pro-life vision to foreground issues of hunger, war and peace, capital punishment, full employment, universal health care, affordable housing, environmental protection. . . .

Francis reminds us that united with our neighbors, we too, the People of God, possess the power to raise the dead.

So as we stand before the grave of God, the church, and Jesus, let’s echo the pope’s cry: “Jesus, come forth!”

Sunday Homily: Gospel Principles to Heal 9/11 Blindness

Architects & Engineers

Readings for 4th Sunday of Lent: I SAM 16: 1B, 6-7, 10-13A; PS 23: 1-6; EPH 5: 8-14; JN 9: 1-14 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/033014.cfm

The Liturgy of the Word for this fourth Sunday of Lent centralizes the themes of blindness, seeing, light and darkness. For me, those topics raise questions about being sightless in our contemporary culture. With us, it’s a nearly universal condition. In fact, you might say that ours is a culture that actually rewards blindness and punishes those who can see. For instance:

• We “Americans” can’t allow ourselves to even imagine the implications of admitting that a right-wing coup took place in our country in the year 2000 when conservative Supreme Court justices overruled the popular electoral will. So we pretend that was normal. We refuse to see what actually happened.

• Meanwhile, politicians assure their electoral futures by asking us to close our eyes to their own crimes while they highlight those of the enemy du jour. For example, they want us to wring our hands over Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, while ignoring routine and less warranted U.S. interventions from Grenada to Libya.

• Then there are the climate-change deniers. They refuse to recognize the human causes of climate chaos while reaping billions in profit as the world disintegrates before our sightless eyes.

• Additionally, we allow ourselves to be more easily persuaded by explanations of the CIA and NSA (part of whose acknowledged mission is to deceive) than by whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange who simply release what government says about itself. Somehow we’ve been convinced that the official sources have authority and integrity, while the whistle-blowers are suspect.

• Above all, our culture is blind to what our own eyes told us took place on September 11th 2001, when three World Trade Center (WTC) buildings collapsed in demolition style after a few hours of localized fires of quite ordinary intensity as far as such tragic conflagrations go.

I say “above all” because the events of 9/11/01 have truly changed our world and continue to do so. They have been used to justify “works of darkness” like those Paul alludes to in today’s second reading from Ephesians. Though Paul shrinks from even mentioning them by name, today we might say that they include the War on Terrorism itself along with Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, racial profiling, drone warfare, torture, water boarding, rendition, Guantanamo, NSA spying, intrusive airport pat-downs . . . .

It’s all justified by 9/11. Paul implies that no one who performs such works is worthy of belief. They operate in secret and in the dark. “Expose them,” Paul urges.

And what needs to be exposed about 9/11? Clearly it’s the weakness of the “official story” we’ve all memorized so well. It says that in the case of two of the WTC buildings, fires feeding off the planes’ jet fuel caused steel girders to melt or weaken to the breaking point. Higher floors fell on top of lower ones, and the buildings pancaked smoothly to the ground. This explanation is accepted even though fires caused by jet fuel cannot even approach the temperatures necessary for such melt-down.

This is not to mention Trade Center Building # 7 that wasn’t even impacted by an airplane and whose demolition style crumbling remains unexplained to this day. Nor need we mention the testimonies of Scientists for 9/11 Truth, the “group of scientific professionals calling for a new, independent, and scientific investigation of the events of September 11, 2001.”

This is not a claim that the U.S. government was necessarily behind the events of 9/11/01. Rather, what’s called for is addressing unanswered questions posed by the scientists just mentioned as well as by scholars of the stature and theological sensibilities of David Ray Griffin.

Griffin is the Process theologian who has devoted the latest phase of his stellar career to raising consciousness about the need to 9/11’s unanswered questions because of the indisputably key role that the tragedy continues to play in “American” political life. He connects 9/11 directly with Jesus and his Kingdom values. I’m sure that, like me, he would see today’s readings as linked to 9/11 blindness.

In 9/11 context, consider today’s readings one by one. They establish principles for dealing with all official stories, explanations and denials.

The first reading tells us that political considerations like the ones just mentioned are not out-of-place in reflections like this. Samuel’s unlikely selection of David from among older and more “worthy” candidates to rule over Israel reminds us that the All Parent is deeply concerned with politics and just governance. In the political realm, Her ways cannot be dictated by what is apparent to merely human wisdom. They always involve preferential option for the least. God’s habit is to turn cultural perceptions upside-down.

The excerpt from Paul’s letter to his friends in Ephesus expands that theme. It identifies Jesus precisely as the one who gives sight to “the least” previously living in the darkness of their contemporary culture governed by falsehood, evil and injustice. Paul says that such darkness is exposed and dispelled by Jesus who brings a bright light that makes everything visible and produces all kinds of goodness, truth and justice.

Then in today’s gospel selection, Jesus shows what it means to bring light. He cures a man born blind. John tells the story through a series of seven interviews involving the poor man. In the process, the formerly sightless beggar doesn’t merely regain the physical ability to see. He also obtains an in-sight that helps him stand up to authorities whose “official” interpretations of Jesus’ healing contradict the blind man’s own senses.

The interviews involve Jesus’ disciples, a conversation with the blind man’s neighbors, three exchanges with Pharisees, interrogation of the blind man’s parents, and a final encounter Jesus himself. In the course of the interactions, the story of the blind man’s cure is recounted three times with delightful elements of magic, humor and irony. The repetition is necessary because the Pharisees, the story’s authority figures, refuse to admit that an ordinary person’s act of seeing can reveal more truth than their official theologized denials and a priori explanations.

So the Pharisees try to convince the cured blind man that he’s lying; he wasn’t really blind at all. They try to get the man’s parents to support their allegations. When that doesn’t work, the Pharisees try to discredit Jesus. He’s a sinner, they say, because he doesn’t observe the Sabbath.

But the beggar refuses to cave in. He insists on believing his own senses, especially sight. “I don’t know much about theology,” he repeats, “but I do know that I was blind and now I see.”

Be like the healed blind man, is the message here. Don’t believe the agents of darkness.

Today’s gospel story goes even further with that instruction. It presents Jesus as not merely turning Pharisaic perceptions upside down, but more generally his culture’s blind spots about truth itself. Those convictions are mirrored in the question of Jesus disciples at the beginning of the episode. Along with Jesus, they see the man born blind. So they ask, “Is this man’s condition the result of his own sin or that of his parents?”

By the end of the story Jesus answers their query with a statement worthy of a Zen master. He says that blindness is no sin at all. It’s seeing that’s sinful. To “clarify,” Jesus adds, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.”

In other words, the story is meant to raise the question, what kind of blindness is virtuous and what kind of seeing is sinful? For Jesus, the Pharisees’ claim to clear sightedness is actually blindness. The blind man’s admission that he was formerly blind and that Jesus cured him represents clarity of vision.

With all that in mind, here are the quasi-principles for post 9/11 discernment that today’s readings suggest:

• Sacred Scripture is indeed concerned with political realities.

• From the faith perspective, official explanations are probably false.

• We should not believe those who perform works of darkness.

• Kingdom consciousness turns official “reality” upside-down.

• Those whom dominant culture dismisses as blind probably have clearer insight than their “betters.”

• We should believe what we see with our own eyes regardless of what the agents of darkness tell us.

In a world shaped by our dear “leaders’” entirely suspect account of 9/11, accepting those gospel principles would drive us to join David Ray Griffin and the 9/11 Truth Movement as they call for a new, independent, and scientific investigation of the events of September 11, 2001.

Curing our nation of 9/11 blindness would deprive our masters of a powerful pretext to justify their works of darkness. That deprivation would truly change everything.

Sunday Homily: Pope Francis to Women: The Next Pope Should Be One of You!

Francis Women

Readings for 3rd Sunday of Lent: EX 17:3-7; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; ROM 5: 1-3, 5-8; JN 4: 5-42. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/032314.cfm (Parenthetical numbers in today’s homily refer to Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.)

The Lenten project of my parish in Kentucky has a group of about 25 parishioners studying Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG). All of us have been inspired by its positive tone and its call for “changing everything” (JG 27). We’re encouraged by the words of the text and by what discussion causes to emerge from the spaces between the lines. And we’re finding what the pope says about women to be surprising and hopeful. In fact it suggests that women should run the church from top to bottom!

That’s relevant to today’s gospel reading – the familiar story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. The story says a lot about Jesus and his “preferential option” for women. It also exemplifies once again how the women in Jesus’ life were more perceptive and courageous leaders than the rather dull, timorous men with whom he surrounded himself.

Pope Francis, if not exactly on the same page as Jesus, is only a few paragraphs behind. He might even lag a sentence or two behind his own reasoning processes.

Before I explain, recall today’s gospel episode.

Jesus finds himself in Samaria among “those people” the Jews hated. Since the reasons for the hatred were located in Israel’s distant past, many Jews probably remained foggy about the exact reasons for their anti-Samaritanism. No matter: they had no doubts that Samaritans were despicable. [Just to remind you: Samaritans were the ones in Israel’s Northern Kingdom who seven centuries earlier had intermarried with Assyrian occupiers. Like “collaborators” everywhere, Samaritans were considered unpatriotic traitors. Religiously they were seen as enemies of God – apostates who had accommodated their religious beliefs to those of foreign occupation forces. (Grudges connected with foreign occupation and religion die hard.)]

In any case, in today’s gospel we have the counter-cultural Jesus once again on the social margins transgressing his people’s most cherished taboos. It’s not bad enough that he is in Samaria at all. He’s there conversing alone with a woman, and a Samaritan woman at that! (What kind of self-respecting rabbi would do either?) And besides, it’s a loose woman who’s his partner in conversation. She has a shady past that continues to darken her life. She’s been married five times and is currently living with a man with benefit of wedlock.

Yet the compassionate Jesus eschews moralism and instead of scolding chooses this marginal woman to reveal his identity in ways more direct than to his male disciples. With no word of reproach, he tells her clearly, “I am the Messiah, the source of ‘living water’ that quenches thirst forever.” After her literalist failures to grasp Jesus’ spiritual imagery, the woman finally “gets it.” She calls her neighbors and shares the good news: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?”

In sharing her good news, the Samaritan woman not only illustrates the privileged position of women in early Christian traditions (like the Gospel of John), she epitomizes as well the corresponding “missionary” role that Pope Francis centralizes in the Apostolic Exhortation that my friends and I have been discussing during Lent. There we find that, following Jesus, Pope Francis expresses a “preferential option” for women. He even suggests that women should be in charge before male priests and bishops.

I know; I know . . . You’re probably thinking, “But aren’t women the weak point of the pope’s ‘Exhortation?’”

True: that’s what everyone said immediately following its publication last November. Commentators said that Francis simply endorsed the position of his two conservative predecessors and excluded women from the priesthood. That said it all, they declared. It’s right there in black and white: the exclusively male priesthood is not open to discussion (104).

But there was more – lots more.

That is, while Francis’ rather wishful (and, of course, impossible) thinking clearly says “the reservation of the priesthood to males . . . is not a question open to discussion” (104), his prohibition actually downgrades the priesthood and bishops in the process, while raising to unprecedented heights the position of women precisely as women.

The pope’s reasoning runs like this:

1. Why should women consider the priesthood so important? After all, it’s just one ecclesiastical function among others. That function is simply to “administer the sacrament of the Eucharist.” Apart from that, the priest has no real power or special dignity (104).

2. Real Christian power and dignity come from baptism, not from ordination – or in the pope’s words: “The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all.” These words pull priests off their traditional pedestals and return them to the rank and file of “the People of God” along with other servants of their peers.

3. Even more, according to the pope, women enjoy a dignity above bishops simply in virtue of their gender. The pope sets the stage for this conclusion by stating, “Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops” (104).

4. Moreover, Mary “is the icon of womanhood” itself (285). That is, by looking at her, we see the idealized position that women should occupy – above both priests and bishops.

5. According to Francis, this realization opens the door to women assuming unprecedentedly powerful positions in the church.

6. He writes, “. . . we need to create still broader opportunities for more incisive female presence in the church (103). So he urges “pastors and theologians . . . to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life” (104).

As one of those theologians the pope references, I suggest that his words in other parts of his Exhortation direct us to put women in charge of the church as a whole – including the papacy itself. After all:

• “The church is a mother, and . . . she preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child” (139). (Why then expect men to preach like a woman?)

• The faith of the church is like Mary’s womb (285). (This means that faith nourishes Christians in a uniquely feminine way.)

• “. . . (E)very Christian is . . . a bride of God’s word, a mother of Christ, his daughter and sister . . .” (285). (“Every Christian!” Is it possible to issue a clearer invitation to men – including the hierarchy – to recognize their own feminine qualities so essential to Christian identity? And who can better exemplify and evoke those qualities than women leaders?)

• The “female genius” (with its “sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets”) equips women more than men to be the out-going missionaries the pope’s Exhortation centralizes (103).

• And since “missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity” (15), it seems that women “more than men” are uniquely equipped to embody the essence of what the church should be doing in the world.

My conclusion from all of this is simple. Regarding women, Pope Francis is far more radical than most realize (perhaps including himself). In fact, Francis’ “preferential option for women” actually mirrors Jesus’ choice expressed so fully in today’s gospel. There Jesus chooses a woman as an apostle (“one sent”) and preacher. Her simple words referencing her own uniquely feminine experience (“everything I’ve ever done”) persuade her village neighbors to meet Jesus and spend time with him. They then draw their own conclusions. They say, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves . . .”

All of this indicates that truly following the rabbi from Nazareth means thinking for ourselves and moving even beyond the pope’s perception of his words’ implications. Those words imply that the church and its mission are more feminine than masculine. They suggest that if only men (because of their physical resemblance to Jesus) can perform the newly demoted function of priest, then women’s physical resemblance to Mary uniquely qualifies them for offices “more important than the bishops.”

In the church hierarchy, what’s above a bishop? A cardinal, of course. And the pope is always drawn from the College of Cardinals. Hmm . . . .

Move over, Francis, make way for Pope FrancEs THE FIRST!

Sunday Homily: Is Liberation Theology Obsolete? Insights of the Enlightened Jesus

Enlightened Jesus

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: GN 12:1-4A; PS 33: 4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; 2 TM 1: 8B-10; MT 17: 1-9 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/031614.cfm

Have you ever gone through a period when you profoundly question how you’re spending your life? I’m thinking especially about suspicions that you might not be giving enough attention to your interior life – to your enlightenment.

Today’s gospel reading about Jesus’ transfiguration before his friends on a mountaintop with Moses and Elijah raises the issue. Matthew’s account presents a literally en-lightened Jesus. He’s suddenly filled with light. His face shines like the sun; his garments become white as snow. The story points towards enlightenment as the purpose of life with all other matters being secondary. . . .

Personally, Jesus’ transfiguration makes me wonder about all the things I do that distract me from the pursuit of personal enlightenment – meditation, my mantra, and the other spiritual disciplines the Great Masters tell us are necessary to attain union with God..

I’ll get back to that in a moment.

But let me contextualize my reflections by confessing my own recurring doubts about finding myself on mistaken path of activism. I mean lately I’ve been wondering if in my thinking, teaching and writing I’m too concerned with politics, economics, and issues of oppression and liberation – too influenced, perhaps, by liberation theology. In fact, over the past six months those wonderings have been surfacing with renewed intensity.

I blame it on India.

And why not? Four months spent in such an exotic atmosphere with its sea of people, intense traffic, dime-a-dozen gurus, wild auto-rickshaws, cows on the street, colorful temples, poverty, spicy food, and wonderfully kind people will raise questions about everything.

On top of that there was yoga every day, past life review, learning prana yama (breath control), and living inter-generationally with my daughter, her husband and three children under five. All of that can cause one to question everything.

Above all, a ten day silent Vipassana retreat with its strict “noble silence,” and 10 hours of meditation each day (100 hours in 10 days) will do the trick. So – to repeat – I find myself questioning everything, including all the things I’ve held important in life. I question what I’ve taught my students over my forty years in the college classroom – you know, about economic systems, on the history of colonialism, liberation theology, and the development of the Jesus tradition.

By the way, I am back teaching again. (That’s been my principal form of activism all my life.) And suddenly my life threatens to become very busy, involved, and outward-turned. Oh, right now it’s not nearly the way it was when I was teaching full time. Currently I teach a two-hour class on Monday, and then I have a day off. Wednesdays there’s another two-hour class followed by four days off. That’s not so bad at all, I’m sure you agree. The point is, however, that teaching has me back on campus.

So a couple of weeks ago, one of the deans saw me there walking across Berea’s quadrangle. He thought, “There’s the man I’ve been looking for.” And pretty soon he’s asking me about directing and administering a prison project Berea’s been asked to join.” (It’s the “Bard Prison Initiative” which offers college degrees to inmates.) The dean asked me if I’d be interested.

I said yes. And now I find myself recruiting Berea teachers to take part – helping prisoners in the Northpoint Training Center/Prison in Danville Kentucky to obtain a Berea College degree. So I’m back organizing and attending meetings. True: it’s a wonderful opportunity in so many ways. But it’s filling up my plate which had become delightfully manageable after I retired from Berea College and stopped my teaching in Costa Rica.

What about meditation then, I wonder? What about the pursuit of enlightenment as (at my age) I’m increasingly aware that the moment of death getting closer and closer? Will new responsibilities distract me from such concerns?

Once again, my questions are intensified by what I learned about Jesus specifically in India. There people kept telling me that during his “hidden life” or “lost years,” Jesus had spent time on the subcontinent. They said that between the ages of 12 and 30, Jesus traveled to India and studied under Buddhist masters who schooled him in the ways of Gautama who lived 500 years earlier.

Though virtually no Christian scholars give such tales any credence, many Indian spiritual guides simply take it for granted that Jesus’ time in India. They even point to documents discovered in a Tibetan monastery that offer “proof” of Jesus’ years there.

Even apart from such evidence they ask: how else can we explain Jesus’ teachings about divine sonship and identity with the “Lord of All”? After all, those teachings agree with the tenets of Indian mysticism, viz. (1) that there’s a spark of the divine within us all, (2) that such divinity can be realized (i.e. expressed in life), (3) that it is the purpose of life to do so, and (4) that once we see the divine spark within ourselves we inevitably recognize it as well in every other human being and in all creatures of the earth.

Though I agree with the literal contrary opinions of the scholars just mentioned, I also believe that Jesus did, in a sense, travel to India. He did so, I’d say, in the way that all mystics travel the world – by tuning into the Universal Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being. That Spirit leads mystics wherever they find themselves to reach the same conclusions about the divine that resides within us all. It’s as though they all sat at the Buddha’s feet – or at the feet of the Enlightened Jesus – without ever leaving home. In that sense, Jesus did indeed travel to India.

And that brings me to today’s gospel and the answer it holds to questions about how to invest one’s life – and about the obsolescence of liberation theology. In the gospel, Peter, James and John find themselves at the feet of the enlightened Jesus. They’re on the ground prostrated. But significantly, Moses and Elijah are there too.

That last element (the presence of Moses and Elijah) answers (I think) my question about balancing activism and the pursuit of enlightenment. The two prophetic giants represent the entire Hebrew Tradition: “The Law” (Moses) and “The Prophets” (Elijah).

Moses was the great liberator who led a slave rebellion against Egypt’s pharaoh 1200 years before the birth of Jesus. Like Jesus and his companions, Moses ascended a mountain to receive God’s revelation. Elijah was the 9th century BCE prophet who specialized in speaking truth to power. Both Jesus and his mentor, John the Baptist, were considered reincarnations of Elijah.

Jesus “conversing” with Moses and Elijah represents the conviction of the early church that a strong continuity existed between the Jewish Testament’s “old story” and the new one embodied in the Enlightened Jesus.

Accordingly, Jesus was the new liberating Moses. His law of love and compassion epitomized the fulfillment of Sinai’s covenant. Jesus was the new courageous Elijah – uncompromising in his siding with the poor – the widows, orphans, and immigrants.

As both the new Moses and Elijah reincarnated the transfigured and enlightened Jesus insists on the indispensability of activism informed by transforming spirituality. And he does so in the face of acute knowledge about his fast-approaching premature death. (Jesus references that in the concluding words in today’s gospel episode: “Tell no one of this vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”)

What can all of that mean for us today – on this second Sunday in Lent? I think it means:

• We have to learn from Indian masters and the East in general about the importance of seeking enlightenment through cultivation of the interior life. There’s a “division of labor” among the world’s Great Religious Traditions. India’s contribution about spirituality is far better developed than the West’s and Christianity’s. The Enlightened Jesus (fresh from his own trip to India) calls us to daily meditation this Lent. There’s no other way to enlightenment.
• At the same time, Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah highlights Christianity’s part in the global division of humanity’s search for the divine. Side with the poor; take on their cause as your own. Do what you can (by way of phone calls, contributions, lobbying, and teaching) to stop the deportation of immigrants, to restore food stamps and unemployment benefits for the hungry and jobless – to see the world from the margins and periphery. The message is something like that.
• Finally, Jesus’ ever-present awareness of “the prophet script” requiring his own early death reminds us that the work of following our Master can never stop – there’s no retirement from it. The proximity or remoteness of death offers no excuse to relax.

Working without ceasing to change ourselves and the world is the very purpose of life. Jesus’ transfiguration, I believe, suggests all of that.

Sunday Homily: Academy Awards, “Gravity,” Lent, and Rebirth

gravity

Readings for First Sunday in Lent: GN 2:7-9, 3:1-7; PS 51: 3-6, 12-13, 17; ROM 5: 12-19; MT 4: 1-11. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/030914.cfm

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. A week ago, Hollywood presented its 2014 Academy Awards. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” won seven Oscars. I think his story and today’s reading about Jesus’ desert retreat are connected.

Lent actually started last Wednesday when many of us put ashes on our forehead to remind us of our approaching death. All of us, the ashes told us, come from the dirt and are rushing headlong towards the grave, whether we consider ourselves “believers” or not. Our world (at least for us as individuals) is ending. That’s simply a law of nature – as inescapable as gravity. It can’t be avoided. With time running out, Lent reminds us, the moment to change – to appropriate our basically divine nature – is now. Jesus’ vision quest in the desert shows the way.

So does “Gravity.” In fact, it’s possible to see the film as mirroring the experience of Jesus during his own “Lent” in the desert depicted in this morning’s gospel selection.

To begin with, both stories are completely symbolic. Both have their protagonists reliving the history of their people. Both show us the path to liberation. It leads from self-centeredness to God-consciousness. As such, both the account of Jesus in the desert and of Sandra Bullock’s character in “Gravity” represent summonses to either grow up here and now or suffer the consequences.

Think about “Gravity” in those terms. Here’s how the film’s publicity describes the plot:

“Director Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, a scientist on a space shuttle mission headed by astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), a talkative, charismatic leader full of colorful stories that he shares with his crewmates as well as mission control. As the two are on a space walk, debris hits the area where they are working, and soon the pair finds themselves detached from their ship and stranded in space. While figuring out what steps they can take to save themselves, Stone grapples with a painful past that makes her consider giving up altogether.”

Without giving too much away, the film can be understood as mirroring the current plight of Mother Earth, the United States and the human species. It’s about our highly technological and artificial way of life and its inevitable destruction by the very laws of nature. It reminds unaware, “spaced out” people to “return home” and live in accordance with our true identity as earth creatures respectful of nature’s laws.

In “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock plays that spaced out American I mentioned. She’s an astronaut. As a medical engineer, she’s a trained healer whose job in NASA is to maintain a basically unsustainable way of life in outer space. To begin with, however she’s totally saddened and distracted by her personal problems. Specifically, she’s still in mourning for her lost daughter who died from an unexplained fall at the age of four. Interestingly, her daughter died conforming to the law of gravity which Dr. Stone’s “mission” requires her to defy.

The point is that Dr. Stone’s mission (like her daughter’s brief life) is doomed by inescapable natural laws. Entropy causes the systems she maintains to run down and demand periodic, extremely costly “missions” like the one she is on. At the same time inertia insures that the inevitable waste produced by the space enterprises will double back to seal the projects’ doom according to the law governing colliding bodies.

In that situation, Dr. Stone becomes the image of an alienated woman called by circumstances to wake up and accept her true divine nature as a healing goddess – as the embodiment of Mother Earth. As such she must return to the larger Divine Mother; she must return to earth and appropriate her own vocation to embody that Mother’s presence.

Think about it: the Bullock character is a “Stone” – the earthiest identification possible. She’s a doctor. She’s an astronaut. In all three identities, she’s out of her element. She’s floating in a weightless atmosphere that has caused her to deny her gravity-governed essence. In addition, like the earth itself, her oxygen supply is threatened. And that, of course, is painful and repulsive. Or as she herself puts it, “I hate space.”

“Gravity’s” story unfolds to display Dr. Stone’s healing efforts to reconnect with earth despite the obstacles working against her. In the process, like Jesus in today’s Gospel, she shows us all the way home from our own alienation and destructive way of life.

Dr. Stone’s way home involves not only using the personal tragedy of her daughter’s death to work in her favor. It also means crossing the Ganges and being blessed by the Buddha. She must also overcome her own ethnocentrism and xenophobia relative to her country’s designated “enemies” (the Russians and Chinese). Her return would have been impossible without an international space platform, a Russian Soyez module and a Chinese Shenzhou space capsule.

Finally, Dr. Stone needs to be “born again,” reliving the entire evolutionary process taking her through human astral origins to earth where she’s plunged into deep baptismal waters. With great effort, she throws off her old identity in the form of her astronaut’s survival gear. In the process, she encounters fish, amphibians and other pre-human life forms in the evolutionary chain. Finally freed of her past, on all fours, Dr. Stone emerges onto Eden’s shore. As a reborn Eve – as Mother Earth – she straightens up and walks forward into a new life. Her final words in the film are “Thank you.”

There’s a similar plot in today’s Gospel – lived out by Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth. Like Dr. Stone in relation to “America,” Jesus reflects the experience of his Jewish compatriots. They passed forty years in the desert enduring temptation the whole time. Jesus in Matthew’s account passes forty days there. His response to temptation rescues and redeems the collective history of his similarly tempted people more than a thousand years earlier.

Jesus’ first temptation is ego-centric – to feed himself by turning stones into bread. His second temptation is ethnocentric – connected with the temple and the quasi-magical attributes accorded the structure by his Jewish contemporaries. Jesus’ final temptation is world-centric – to exercise dominion of “all the nations of the world.” By rejecting all three, Jesus symbolically achieves cosmic-consciousness. The story ends with his being ministered to by angels.

As in “Gravity,” Jesus’ vision quest in the desert maps out our Lenten path. It leads from self-centeredness to cosmic consciousness of unity with the One in whom we live and move and have our being. The path cannot be traveled without struggle. Its goal cannot be achieved without breaking free from selfishness, xenophobia, and the arrogance of life in an imperial center whose ways are unsustainable and far removed from its evolutionary roots. That’s the point of Lent’s prayerfulness, penance, fasting, and abstinence.

Practically speaking returning home during Lent – realizing our True Self being transformed like Jesus and Dr. Stone – might mean:

• Renewing our prayer life. Even unbelievers can do this. How? I recommend reading Eknath Easwaran’s Passage Meditation to find out. Yes, meditate each day during Lent. It will bring you into contact with your True Self. (And, I predict, you won’t stop at the end of 40 days – it’s that life-transforming.)
• Abstaining from fast food and reclaiming the kitchen. Leave behind for forty days the typically chemicalized, fatty, sugar-hyped American diet, and perhaps experiment with vegetarianism. That seems far more beneficial than traditional “fast and abstinence.”
• Shopping locally and refusing to set foot in any of the Big Boxes during Lent’s 40 days. Think of it as homage to Jesus’ counter-cultural resort to the desert or as Dr. Stone’s leaving behind that artificial life in outer space.
• To escape ethnocentrism and imperial sway,adopting as your news source OpEdNews and/or Al Jazzera rather than the New York Times.
• Resolving each day to actually respond to one of those many appeals we all receive to make phone calls and write letters to our “representatives” in Congress.
• In the “Comment” space below, share other suggestions.

Yes, it’s Lent once again. Like Dr. Ryan Stone, we faced up to our origins in dust last Ash Wednesday. A good Lent which leaves behind selfishness, ethnocentrism and allegiance to empire will also allow us to utter her sincere “Thank You” on Easter as we rise from our knees transformed.

Sunday Homily: Jesus Rejects Money and Work: He Embraces ‘Back to Nature’ Abundance

Gandhi Greed

Readings for 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 49:14-15; PS 62: 2-3, 6-9; I COR 4: 1-5; MT 6: 24-34. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/030214.cfm

Today’s liturgy of the word raises the question of work and money – always two difficult elements of life for those claiming to follow Jesus’ Way. They’re difficult because both occupy so much of our attention and lives that they can distract us from what’s really important – what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.” Consequently, in this morning’s Gospel selection, Jesus tells us to back off from both money and work while opening ourselves to the abundance of God’s Kingdom.

For American workaholics, that’s surprising. It’s especially challenging for those who love to attack “the undeserving poor” – that is, workers empowered by government programs even like the Affordable Health Care Act. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)

About money Jesus directly compares the worship of God with the common attitude Americans adopt towards money – or as Jesus puts it, “Mammon” (the name for an idol). It’s impossible, Jesus says, to make money the focus of your life while claiming to serve God. In fact money can make us hate God. But that’s not the surprising part.

What is surprising is that Jesus’ claim comes very close to saying that loving God should make us hate money. That seems to be the meaning of his words recorded in today’s selection from Matthew. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

In other words, there’s a choice to be made here: serve God or money; hate and despise money or hate and despise God. No one can have it both ways. The text seems to bear that reading, don’t you think?

Of course Jesus’ pronouncement will lead many to “clarify” his words to mean don’t be attached to money. It’s the service of money – it’s making money your master – they would explain, that causes hatred of God.

Okay. But who among us (even financiers, banksters and hedge fund managers) would claim to serve money even though they spend all their waking hours scheming about it. Who would admit that they’re attached to money, or have made it their master? Even those 85 individuals proud of owning as much as half the human race would probably deny that they “serve” money or that it’s their master. (And if they’re right, we can stop our discussion right here!)

On the other hand, those wishing to have it both ways might go further. They might invoke “nature.” They might point out we obviously can’t do without money; it’s a product of nature (human nature) they might say. Some might even argue we can’t even do without capitalism and its drive to “maximize profit.” Capitalism and profit maximization simply represent the inescapable way the world works. They are reflections of the natural order. If they allow 85 people to own more than half the world, so be it. That’s simply natural. (Please hold that thought.)

Such talk about nature brings us to my second point – Jesus’ attitude towards work and those who choose not to. Here he definitely has a “back to nature” approach. And once again, it’s surprising. Jesus is not talking about the naturalness of competition or of the law of supply and demand.

In today’s reading from Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says clearly that the natural order not only minimizes the importance of money (at the very least); it also minimizes the importance of work. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says, “they don’t sow or reap or store food in barns.” Or “Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin.” Learn from them both. Follow their example.

Say what? Is Jesus intention here to discourage work itself? (Talk about contradicting “American” values!) It’s easy to draw that conclusion, I think. After all, he seems to be saying don’t sow or reap or store products in warehouses. Don’t toil or spin. It’s a short step from there to saying, “Don’t work!”

Besides that, Jesus seems to have lived out that latter implication. I mean as an able-bodied 30-something, he left his job as a carpenter to wander from village to village in Palestine philosophizing and apparently living on hand-outs. On the road, he had no home and must have sought shelter from friends. Moreover, he got rough fishermen to leave their nets and follow his example of what appears to be idleness as far as economic productivity is concerned.

In fact, Republicans today would clearly regard Jesus and his apostles as examples of the idle undeserving poor – not to say bums – living off the donations of hard working people. I mean, does that contradict our Protestant Work Ethic, or what?

And that brings me to that Obamacare business.

Did you follow last month’s flap over the Congressional Budget Office’s Report on jobs and President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act (ACA)? It said that the ACA would induce 2.5 million people to leave work. They’d escape “job lock” – i.e. the inability to leave employment because doing so would lose them health coverage.

All hell broke loose.

When Paul Ryan (R-Wis) heard that, hypocrisy demanded that he and his Republican cronies reverse their position on “job lock.” Formerly they were against it. In fact a couple of years ago, Ryan said,”[The] key question that ought to be addressed in any healthcare reform legislation is, are we going to continue job-lock or are we going to allow individuals more choice and portability to fit the 21st century workforce?”

Now, however, since freedom from “job lock” represented a boon of the ACA, Ryan and the Republicans had changed their tune. They quickly became opponents of “more choice and portability.” Having realized that Obamacare will not eliminate jobs, but increase worker freedom to change jobs or leave the workforce altogether, GOP spokespersons were forced to readopt their familiar tack of demonizing empowered workers and the poor.

This meant that mothers and fathers leaving coveted jobs at McDonalds or as greeters in Wal-Mart to spend more time with their families were characterized as slackers and lazy. According to Ryan, such people lose respect for “the dignity of work.” They were worthy of their traditional rank among Republicans’ favorite target, the undeserving poor. (Never mind that Ryan has done everything he can to undermine labor’s dignity – but that’s another story.)

The point is that Jesus and his sainted friends were not only among the undeserving poor, they flaunted it. They recognized that according to God’s natural order, the world belongs to all creatures including the birds and flowers. If its resources were shared according to Jesus’ Kingdom values, there’d be enough for everyone – just as there was for birds and flowers in Jesus’ day.

So in minimizing the importance of money and praising freedom from work, Jesus was not being unrealistic or some starry-eyed hippy. Instead (as always) he was proclaiming the Kingdom of God. In God’s order, he insisted, there is abundance for everyone – or as Gandhi said enough for everyone’s need, but not for their greed.

Realizing the reality of God’s and nature’s abundance – and not giving in to the world’s myth of scarcity, overwork, and focus on money – should give workers and those not belonging to Ryan’s 1% courage to demand what is their birthright.

That natural condition is a life without worry about making ends meet and with enough leisure to enjoy life just like the birds and flowers.

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