God’s Abundance vs. the Greed, and Self- Interested Denial of the Rich : Jesus’ Parable of the Sower

Parable of Sower

Readings for 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 55:10-11; PS 65:10-14; ROM 8:15-23; MT 13: 1-23; http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/071314.cfm

Not long ago, on the 4th of July, Amy Goodman replayed an interview with the legendary folk singer, Pete Seeger. In the course of the interview, Pete commented on today’s Gospel reading – the familiar parable of the Sower. His words are simple, unpretentious and powerful. They’re reminders that the stories Jesus made up were intended for ordinary people – for peasants and unschooled farmers. They were meant to encourage such people to believe that simple farmers could change the world – could bring in God’s Kingdom. Doing so was as simple as sowing seeds.

Seeger said:

“Realize that little things lead to bigger things. That’s what Seeds is all about. And there’s a wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousand fold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of?”

Farmers in Jesus’ day needed encouragement like that. They were up against the Roman Empire which considered them terrorists. We need encouragement too as we face Rome’s counterpart headed by the U.S.

The obstacles we face are overwhelming. I even hate to mention them. But the short list includes the following – all connected to seeds, and farming, and to cynically controlling the natural abundance which is celebrated in today’s readings as God’s gift to all. Our problems include:

• Creation of artificial food scarcity by corporate giants such as Cargill who patent seeds for profit while prosecuting farmers for the crime of saving Nature’s free production from one harvest to the following year’s planting.
• Climate change denial by the rich and powerful who use the Jesus tradition to persuade the naïve that control of natural processes and the resulting ecocide are somehow God’s will.
• Resulting wealth concentration in the hands of the eight men who currently own as much as half the world’s (largely agrarian) population.
• Suppression of that population’s inevitable resistance by terming it “terrorism” and devoting more than half of U.S. discretionary spending to military campaigns against farmers and tribal Peoples scattering seed and reaping pitiful harvests in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine.
• Ignoring what the UN has pointed out for years (and Thomas Picketty has recently confirmed): that a 4% tax on the world’s richest 225 individuals would produce the $40 billion dollars or so necessary to provide adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, education and health care for the entire world where more than 40% still earn livings by sowing seeds.
• Blind insistence by our politicians on moving in the opposite direction – reducing taxes for the rich and cutting programs for the poor and protection of our planet’s water and soil.

It’s the tired story of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. In today’s Gospel, Jesus quotes the 1st century version of that old saw. In Jesus’ day it ran: “. . . to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us that such cynical “wisdom” does not represent God’s way. Instead the divine order favors abundance of life for all – not just for the 1%. as our culture would have it. For instance, today’s responsorial psalm proclaims that even without human intervention, the rains and wind plow the ground. As a result, we’re surrounded with abundance belonging to all:

“You have crowned the year with your bounty,
and your paths overflow with a rich harvest;
The untilled meadows overflow with it,
and rejoicing clothes the hills.
The fields are garmented with flocks
and the valleys blanketed with grain.
They shout and sing for joy.”

Because of God’s generosity, there is room for everyone in the Kingdom. The poor have enough; so poverty disappears. Meanwhile, the formerly super-rich have only their due share of the 1/7 billionth part of the world’s product that rightfully belongs to everyone.

To repeat: abundance for all is the way of Nature – the way of God.

Only a syndrome of denial – willful blindness and deafness – enables the rich and powerful to continue their exploitation. Jesus describes the process clearly in today’s final reading. He says:

“They look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.
Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:
You shall indeed hear but not understand,
you shall indeed look but never see.
Gross is the heart of this people,
they will hardly hear with their ears,
they have closed their eyes,
lest they see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their hearts and be converted,
and I heal them.”

Those of us striving to follow Jesus’ Way hear his call to open our eyes and ears. Conversion – deep change at the personal and social levels – is our shared vocation. That’s the only way to bring in God’s Kingdom. Individually our efforts might be as small and insignificant as tiny seeds. But those seeds can be powerful if aligned with the forces of Nature and the Kingdom of God. That’s true even if much of what we sow falls on rocky ground, are trampled underfoot, eaten by birds or are choked by thorns. We never know which seeds will come to fruition.

Such realization means:

• Lowering expectations about results from our individual acts in favor of the Kingdom.
• Nonetheless deepening our faith and hope in the inevitability of the Kingdom’s coming as the result of innumerable small acts that coalesce with similar acts performed by others.

Once again, Pete Seeger expressed it best:

“Imagine a big seesaw. One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it’s got a basket one quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons and we are trying to fill it up. Most people are scoffing at us. They say, “People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but it is leaking out of that basket as fast as you are putting it in.” Our answer is that we are getting more people with teaspoons every day. And we believe that one of these days or years — who knows — that basket of sand is going to be so full that you are going to see that whole seesaw going zoop! in the other direction. Then people are going to say, “How did it happen so suddenly?” And we answer, “Us and our little teaspoons over thousands of years.”

G 20, God’s Peace and the World’s Wars: 180° of Separation (Sunday Homily)

G20

Readings for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: ZEC 9:9-10; PS 145: 1-2, 8-12; ROM 8:8, 11-13; MT 11: 25-30

So the G-20 is meeting this week in Hamburg, Germany. Isn’t it comforting?  Among other things, this privileged group of wealthy co-conspirators will choose the means by which the rich would ultimately destroy the planet. Will it be by nuclear holocaust or by ignoring climate change?

Or will it be by economic policies that enable eight (count ‘em – 8) individuals to possess as much wealth as 3.6 billion people, while 30,00 children die of starvation each day. President Trump prefers to end the world by climate change; Ms. Merkel’s leans towards nuclear weapons. However, in the spirit of irenic political compromise, both Merkel and The Donald could ultimately go either way. In any case, they both approve the reigning system’s math whose product is mass starvation.

It’s great to be rich, don’t you agree?

Think about it. According to today’s papers, our billionaire leaders have more or less out-of-the-blue decreed that Russia, North Korea, the Ukraine, and Syria represent urgent crises and causi belli nuclear. And this, even though using just 1% of the world’s 15,000 nuclear weapons of mass-destruction would likely render our planet completely uninhabitable.

Meanwhile, no one I know can even explain to me why Pakistan, India, and Israel should be allowed to possess nuclear weapons, but not North Korea or Iran. No one can help me understand why we’re even concerned about Ukraine or Syria – much less Yemen or Somalia. What dog do we have in those fights?

And, explain to me, pray-tell, why an ignoramus like Mr. Trump and his gang of Republican Know-Nothings should be able to determine the fate of the planet relative to climate change. Do their opinions represent yours? Not mine! What happened to democracy?

It’s all quite insane.

In contrast to all of this, today’s liturgy of the word celebrates peace unequivocally. All three of the day’s readings, plus the responsorial psalm emphasize the fact that peace, not war or planetary destruction is the way of God’s kingdom. That reign, where God is king instead of Caesar (or Mr. Trump or Ms. Merkel), turns out to be diametrically opposed to the world’s logic of war and disregard for Mother Nature. It contradicts ALL of the values of the planet’s “wise” and “learned” – ALL OF THEM! This means that if you want to do the right thing or support the right policy, you should do the exact opposite of what the politicians, pundits and professors tell you.

Yes, read the final communication from Hamburg. But then add the qualification “NOT!!” Like magic, then, you’ll arrive at God’s position.

That’s more or less what our readings today tell us!

Even before Jesus, and setting the tone for the day, the first reading from Zechariah describes God’s divine Spirit as completely anti-war. In the prophet’s words, it banishes chariots from Ephraim, and the warhorse from Jerusalem. It breaks the warrior’s bow in two not only in the holy city, but across the planet itself.

For St. Paul, in today’s second selection, such rejection of war manifests the very Spirit of Christ dwelling within us all. That Spirit gives life, not death, to the entire world. It is the Spirit of God himself. It is our own spirit – our true Self. So, if we choose to bomb, shoot or drone anyone, we’re committing suicide. That’s what it all means.

In his own phrasing, Paul describes the opposite of such divine rationale as “flesh,” “body,” “mortality,” “darkness,” and “death.” It is the logic of individuality and separation. In practice it all leads inevitably to war – to Zechariah’s horse, chariot, bow and spear – all of which the world’s “learned” consider “wise,” practical, and realistic.

Today’s responsorial psalm calls the contradicting World Soul “merciful” and “compassionate” towards all creatures, not just humans, much less exclusively towards those of a particular race or nation. Though “mighty,” it is gentle and non-violent (“meek”) especially towards the heavily burdened and crushed.

All of that represents the logic of God’s kingdom, which according to Jesus’ words today, emphasizes the unity of humankind – the fact that we and all of creation are linked by what Jesus calls his single easy “yoke.”

According to Jesus, his message or “burden” is not dark, heavy, or difficult to understand. Even the most unlearned (“the little ones”) can grasp it. Far from threatening our survival, it is light itself; its acceptance represents the epitome of enlightenment. Ironically, then, the simple, the unlearned, the nobodies of the world, appreciate Jesus’ proclamation better than their educated counterparts.

In practice, those wise men (including many church leaders) continue to dismiss God’s logic as somehow impractical, stupid, suicidal, utopian, unrealistic, and naïve. As I’ve already indicated, their wisdom instead dictates “wise” and “realistic” policies emphasizing separation, individuality, competition, nuclear weapons, and mutually assured destruction (MAD).

And how’s that wisdom working out for you, your children, grandchildren, and our world?

It’s time for followers of Jesus to finally embrace God’s word as expressed in today’s readings. Our very survival depends on it. It’s up to us to reject the world’s logic – the calculus of flesh, body, darkness, war, and violence.  Now is the hour for us to vote, take to the streets (like the hundreds of thousands in Hamburg), and begin living according to Spirit, light, peace, and non-violence.

That’s because we are Spirit, not flesh. So only the non-violence celebrated in today’s readings can save us. That’s not naive, my friends, it’s the realism of God.

(Sunday Homily) July 4th in the Land of the Regimented and Home of the Terrified

July 4th

Readings for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2KGS 4: 5-11, 14-18A; PS 89: 2-3, 16-19; ROM 5: 3-4, 8-11; MT 10: 37-42.

Today’s liturgy of the word celebrates hospitality. It lauds the loving reception of prophets, social justice activists (the righteous), and the least among us. It invites us to grow up and offer such welcome despite what family members might think, when prophets like Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus contradict the culture’s received wisdom.  We are to embrace such critics despite the resulting rejection and threats (even death) of the larger community. The liturgy reminds us that openness to prophets, champions of social justice, and their victimized protégées imitates the generosity of Jesus and God himself.

Reflections like these prove especially apt on this Fourth of July weekend, at a time when our national circumstances stand in such sharp contradiction to the ideals we celebrate. To understand what I mean, first consider the occasion; then the liturgy’s sobering reminders about hospitable openness to prophetic insights which in Israel were often critical of the distance between the nation’s ideals and its historical, lived reality.

Let’s begin with our context.

Tuesday, of course, will be Independence Day. It’s an annual festival to laud the Founding Fathers, democracy, and American ideals of freedom, justice, and our “exceptional” Way of Life. It’s a time to remember that we’re a nation of immigrants – those famous “tired, poor, and huddled masses” – seeking better conditions in a land of unlimited possibilities. It’s when we sing the “Star Spangled Banner” recalling that we’re all free and brave.

Some of us will go to baseball games or watch the national pastime on T.V. There, war planes will fly in formation as we sing Francis Scott Key’s hymn that has always connected our banner to rockets and bombs. At the 7th inning stretch, we’ll cheer local servicemen and women just returned from current U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, where (it will be claimed) they’ve bravely defended our democracy and freedom.

We’ll wave flags, attend fireworks displays, and wear clothes with patriotic insignia. There will be parades with high school marching bands. Picnics will feature hot dogs, hamburgers, apple pie, potato salad, beer and Coke. At other gatherings, the Pledge of Allegiance will be recited proclaiming that our nation is one, indivisible and lives “under God.” In the spirit of it all, some will inevitably cheer “U.S.A., U.S.A.”

In short, we’ll celebrate life in America, where patriots are blessed and happy.

Unfortunately, none of that will ring true for me this year. In fact, it hasn’t in a long time.

That’s because as a nation (as in the Israel of Elijah, Elisha and Jesus) we’ve long since abandoned the ideals that supposedly underlie the garish and familiar outward display. In fact, it’s all been hijacked in a coup d’état – or several of them – that we don’t even recognize as having occurred. I’m referring to the assassination of J.F.K. in 1963, and to the selection of George W. Bush by the Supreme Court (rather than by voters) in 2000, and to the recent gradual and undemocratic seizure of all levers of public power by what Chomsky calls “the most dangerous organization in the history of the world,” viz. the Republican Party. Their anti-democratic power grab has been facilitated by:

  • Governmental refusal to abolish the Electoral College despite the fact that two of our last three presidents have been selected by bureaucrats rather than elected by a majority of voters
  • The SCOTUS Citizens United decision equating money with free speech
  • The Supreme Court’s partial repeal of the 1963 Voting Rights Act (in 2013)
  • General voter suppression and intimidation in poor, minority communities
  • Depriving convicted felons of voting rights
  • Insistence on using hackable voting machines with no paper trail
  • Exclusion of third and fourth party candidates from presidential debates
  • Ridiculous gerrymandering
  • Violation of the Constitutions’ mandate to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat until a right-wing extremist could occupy the post

All of that has made untenable any pretension of democracy. Ours is now an entrenched plutocracy, where the popular will doesn’t matter. Our wars have nothing to do with advancing democracy’s cause. In fact, few could even explain (much less defend) why “we” are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen. Can you? I can’t.

So it turns out that our soldiers are not heroes. They are well-meaning, but systematically brain-washed by their “basic training.” That enables them to routinely torture and kill the innocent impoverished people whom they’re mobilized against for reasons the soldiers don’t even question, much less understand. (Isn’t it interesting that ALL our wars are fought against the desperately poor?) Supposedly, our military is fighting terrorists. But those simply wouldn’t exist absent their direct creation by the U.S. government – to defeat the Russians in Afghanistan (during the 1970s) and as a direct response to our country’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003. There is no doubt about it: ISIS was “made in America.” Most of our victimized and victimizing service people know none of this.

Far from being brave and free, the rest of us are all scared out of our wits and are constantly and resignedly monitored by a Big Brother whose unchanging mantra is “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” So we withdraw into our homes (some in literally gated communities) and distract ourselves with our T.V. shows, computers, IPads, and smart phones. We cheer an ignorant and mendacious Reality Show President as he proposes plans to build defensive walls against the immigrant successors of our own ancestors. We treat as normal an entire Know Nothing political party bent on depriving millions of health care and whose climate-change-denial will render the planet unlivable for our grandchildren. Without so much as a whimper, whites look on largely silent as skin-head police thugs are acquitted again and again, even after their neo-lynchings of unarmed black people are unambiguously caught on camera. The blue suited cowards’ unwavering self-defense is: “I feared for my life.”

We’ve become a land of the constantly surveilled and skittishly cowered.

All of that is called into question by today’s biblical readings. Together they celebrate “reception,” i.e. hospitality offered to prophets (social critics), the righteous (social justice champions), and the least among us. All of them, we’re told, are embodiments of the Christ Spirit and of God himself. The welcoming word “receive” appears eight times in today’s brief gospel selection.

And who is it that we’re receiving? As I’ve indicated, they are prophets to begin with. The first reading recounts an episode from Elijah’s successor, Elisha. Elijah, remember, was the fierce social critic of Israel for abandoning its identity as protector of widows, orphans, and immigrants. He excoriated palace sycophants who in the name of God optimistically, patriotically, and blindly proclaimed “peace, peace.” Instead, Elijah correctly predicted, Israel’s chickens would come home to roost. They’d be humiliated by Babylon – the ancient name of present day Iraq. Elijah’s successor, Elisha, continued his mentor’s mission after the latter was swept up to heaven in a fiery chariot.

Jesus of Nazareth as well as John the Baptist were identified as Elijah redivivus. They suffered accordingly. The people turned against them as they had done against all the prophets. Jesus was crucified as an enemy of the Roman Empire and its temple collaborators. According to Mark, the evangelist, the Master was thought insane by his mother and family.

So in today’s gospel, we find Jesus directing us to love God’s Kingdom more than family. (The Kingdom as embodied in Jesus’ person was a vision of what the world would be like if it were governed by God instead of Caesar and his successors.)  In today’s reading, Jesus calls us to damn the consequences of being as outspoken as were he and his prophetic predecessors.

We too must be ready, he says, to take up our cross and follow him. (Remember the cross was the instrument of torture and death reserved for opponents of Rome. His reported reference to “the cross,” then, is highly political.)

So on this Independence Day, perhaps our most patriotic action might be (at least in spirit) to spend the day in sackcloth, ashes, and mourning. It might be best to look critically at the fireworks, parades, ball games, picnics and family gatherings, as though they belonged to foreigners and to reinterpret them as a summons to resist. (In fact, any follower of Jesus, is a foreigner in this world, and a resister by definition.)

In other words, our call this day might be to speak the truth about our lost ideals, and then to endure patiently the fury of the family, friends, and community Jesus tells us to reject for his sake. Our true family, he reminds us, is not composed of “Americans,” but of the prophets, social activists, and “little ones” he, Elijah and Elisha championed so fearlessly.

The Reformers Were Right about the Lord’s Supper (Sunday Homily)

one loaf

Readings for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ: DT 8:2-3,14B-16A; PS 147 12-15, 19-20, ICOR 10: 16-17; JN 6:51-58

Recently, my beloved eight-year-old granddaughter received her First Holy Communion. The whole event had me worried. I mean her Sunday School teachers had filled her head with “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected. In the 4th century he wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”

Eventually, my granddaughter, I predict, will come to the same conclusion. And rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s Shared Bread, which is specially celebrated in today’s liturgy, she’ll probably follow the example of so many young people I know and reject the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasy akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because it represents a rejection of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

Let me explain.

To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, From the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.

But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:

Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.

“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well. It was something uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against one another, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves. That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.

Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.

Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.

Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.

In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one Body of Christ.

All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.

Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”

And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction (found in I COR: 12-12-27) is worth quoting at length:

12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts.

15 Suppose the foot says, “I am not a hand. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 16 And suppose the ear says, “I am not an eye. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, how could it hear? If the whole body were an ear, how could it smell? 18 God has placed each part in the body just as he wanted it to be. 19 If all the parts were the same, how could there be a body? 20 As it is, there are many parts. But there is only one body.

21 The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 In fact, it is just the opposite. The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without. 23 The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honor. The private parts aren’t shown. But they are treated with special care. 24 The parts that can be shown don’t need special care. But God has put together all the parts of the body. And he has given more honor to the parts that didn’t have any. 25 In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy.

27 You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”

Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context.  That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.

In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me.  And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ, act together as I would.”

Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?

It’s powerful. The Eucharist is not a magic show where one thing becomes another. It’s a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.

That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.

My granddaughter and the world she’ll inherit need everything that signifies. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.

Why the Church? (Sunday Homily)

Sisters

Readings for Ascension Sunday: Acts 1: 1-11; Ps. 47: 2-3, 6-9; Eph. 1: 17-23; Lk. 24: 48-53

After binge-watching The Keepers last weekend, it’s difficult for me not to connect Ascension Sunday with the church as depicted there. Apart from the fascination stemming from the horrific events portrayed, the docuseries depicts a Catholic Church that has all but disappeared.

Before the 1970s, priests and women religious were plentiful. At my parish, St. Viator, on Chicago’s Northwest Side, our Viatorian priests all living together in the rectory were Fathers Fitzpatrick, Ranahan, Ryan, Burke, and Devereux – along with Brother Kelzer. In addition, women religious dominated our school. Every year a different Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet taught me there. To this day, I remember them daily in my prayers: Sisters Helen Clare, Mary Jane, Loyola, Rose Anthony, Mary Paul, Cyril, Rita Marie, and Irma. My mind can still see them at daily Mass where their community filled three long pews. It seemed like there were about 20 of them.

Then came Vatican II (1962-’65), and that was the end of that. With the great reforms, everything was called into question: the nature of the church itself, the priesthood, the communal religious life. Priests and nuns left their “consecrated lives” in droves.

Observation of today’s “feast day,” the Ascension of Jesus, was part of it all. Time was when Jesus’ Ascension was celebrated on Thursday as a “holy day of obligation.” That phrase meant that Catholics were obliged to attend Mass on Thursday just as they were on Sunday. To miss Mass on such a day was to commit a “mortal sin.” And that meant that if you died before “going to confession,” you would be condemned to hell for all eternity.

So until the years following the Second Vatican Council, Catholics would fill their churches on Ascension Thursday in the same numbers (and under the same threat) that made them come to Mass on Sundays. That’s hard to imagine today.

I suppose that difficulty is responsible for the transfer of the commemoration of Jesus’ “ascension into heaven” from Thursday to Sunday. I mean it wasn’t that the church changed its teaching about “holy days of obligation.” It didn’t. Catholics simply voted with their feet. They stopped believing that God would send them to hell for missing Mass on Ascension Thursday or the feast of the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption (August 15th), or All Saints Day (November 1st) or on any of the other “holy days.” Church once a week was about as much as the hierarchy could expect.

But even there, Catholics stopped believing that God would punish them for missing Mass on Sunday. So these days they more easily attend to other matters on Sunday too. They set up an early tee time or go for a hike in the woods. Afterwards they cut the lawn or go shopping at Wal-Mart. That kind of “servile work on Sundays” or shopping used to be forbidden “under pain of sin” as well. And once again, it isn’t church teaching that has changed. Catholics have just decided that the teachings don’t make sense anymore, and have stopped observing them.

And apparently they do so in good conscience. So you won’t find them running to confession after missing Mass or working and shopping on Sunday. In fact, that’s another way Catholics have voted with their feet. For all practical purposes, they’ve stopped believing in Confession – and largely in many of the mortal sins they were told would send them to hell – like practicing contraception or even getting a divorce.

I remember Saturday evenings when I was a kid (and later on when I was a priest). People would line up from 4:00-6:00, and then from 7:00 -9:00 to “go to Confession.” And the traffic would be steady; the lines were long. No more! In fact, I personally can’t remember the last time I went to confession. And no priests today sit in the confessional box on Saturday afternoons and evenings waiting for penitents to present themselves.

What I’m saying is that the last fifty years have witnessed a tremendous change in faith – at least among Catholics. Our old faith has gone the way of St. Christopher and St. Philomena and “limbo” all of which have been officially decertified since Vatican II.

In fact, since then the whole purpose of being a Catholic has become questioned at the grassroots level. More and more of our children abandon a faith that often seems fantastic, childish and out-of-touch. Was Jesus really about going to heaven and avoiding hell? Or is faith about trying to follow the “Way” of Jesus in this life with a view to making the world more habitable for and hospitable to actually living human beings?

That question is centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. There the attentive reader can discern a conflict brewing. On the one side there’s textual evidence of belief within the early church that following Jesus entails focus on justice in this world – on the kingdom. And on the other side there are the seeds of those ideas that it’s all about the promise of “heaven” with the threat of hell at least implicit. The problem is that the narrative in today’s liturgy of the word is mixed with its alternative.

According the story about following Jesus as a matter of this-worldly justice, the risen Master spent the 40 days following his resurrection instructing his disciples specifically about “the Kingdom.” For Jews that meant discourse about what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Jesus’ teaching must have been strong. I mean why else in Jesus’ final minutes with his friends, and after 40 days of instruction about the kingdom would they pose the question, “Is it now that you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” That’s a political and revolutionary question about driving the Romans out of the country.

Moreover Jesus doesn’t disabuse his friends of their notion as though they didn’t get his point. Instead he replies in effect, “Don’t ask about precise times; just go back to Jerusalem and wait for my Spirit to come.” That Spirit will “clothe you in justice,” he tells them. Then he takes his leave.

Presently two men clothed in white (the color of martyrdom) tell the disciples to stop looking up to heaven as if Jesus were there. He’s not to be found “up there,” they seem to say. Jesus will soon be found “down here.” There’s going to be a Second Coming. Jesus will complete the project his crucifixion cut short – restoring Israel’s kingdom. So the disciples who are Jews who think they’ve found the Messiah in Jesus, return in joy to Jerusalem and (as good Jews) spend most of their time in the Temple praising God, and waiting to be “clothed in Jesus’ Spirit” of liberation from Roman rule.

The other story (which historically has swallowed up the first) emphasizes God “up there,” and our going to him after death. It’s woven into the fabric of today’s readings too. Here Jesus doesn’t finally discourse about God’s kingdom, but about “the forgiveness of sin.” After doing so, he’s lifted up into the sky. There Paul tells his readers in Ephesus, he’s enthroned at the Father’s right hand surrounded by angelic “Thrones” and “Dominions.” This Jesus has founded a “church,” – a new religion; and he is the head of the church, which is his body.

This is the story that emerged when Paul tried to make Jesus relevant to gentiles – to non-Jews who were part of the Roman Empire, and who couldn’t relate to a messiah bent on replacing Rome with a world order characterized by God’s justice for a captive people. So it gradually turned Jesus into a “salvation messiah” familiar to Romans. This messiah offered happiness beyond the grave rather than liberation from empire. It centralized a Jesus whose morality reflected the ethic of empire: “obey or be punished.” That’s the ethic we Catholics grew up with and that former and would-be believers find increasingly incredible, and increasingly irrelevant to our 21st century world.

Would all of that incredibility and irrelevance change if the world’s 2.1 billion Christians (about 1/3 of the world’s total population) adopted the this-worldly Jesus as its own instead of the Jesus “up there?” That is, would it change if Christians stopped looking up to heaven and focused instead on the historical Jesus so concerned with God’s New World Order of justice for the poor and rejection of empire?

Imagine if believers uncompromisingly opposed empire and its excesses – if what set them apart was their refusal to fight in empires’ wars or serve its interests. How different – and more peaceful – our world would be!

A sensitive discerning reading of today’s liturgy of the word, a sensitive and critical understanding of Jesus’ “ascension” presents us with that challenge. How should we respond?

All Catholics Should See “The Keepers”: It Will Scare the Hell Out of You (Sunday Homily)

Readings for 6th Sunday of Easter: ACTS 8: 5-8; 14-17; PS 66: 1-7; 16, 26; I PT 3: 15-18; JN 14: 15-21

I’m presently in Michigan working hard on a book I’m writing about critical thinking.

Meanwhile, my wife, Peggy, is off in Cuba teaching a class of Berea College students there. So I’ve had lots of time to invest in my project. And I’ve nearly finished another draft.

This weekend, my sister, Mary, has come to our cottage in Canadian Lakes for a very welcome visit. Unfortunately, however, the weather has been cold and rainy. So we spent some time watching a startling Netflix series. It’s called “The Keepers.” It’s a shocking account of an unsolved 1969 murder of a young Catholic nun in Baltimore.

Sister Cathy Cesnik, disappeared shortly after confronting authorities about widespread sexual abuse at the prestigious Keough High School, where she taught English. Two priests there used the confessional to identify young females who would be vulnerable to their sexual depredations. Eventually they ended up sharing their victims with school outsiders including police officials. The priests had become pimps who threatened their victims and their families with death if they revealed their abuse.

The young women were so traumatized that the priests’ threats kept them silent for years.

Finally, however, some of Sr. Cathy’s former students decided to investigate her murder.  One thing led to another, and eventually more than 50 women came forward with their shocking tales which brought to light not only cover-ups by the Baltimore archdiocese, but that implicated the Baltimore Police Department as well.

The story with its cynical use of religion to exploit innocent children led to long conversations with my sister about our Catholic backgrounds, about our own experiences in Catholic schools, about confession, and church teachings in general. We found ourselves sympathizing with those (including close friends and relatives) who have left the church as irredeemably corrupt. No wonder, we agreed, that “former Catholics” represent the second largest religious “denomination” in the country (with 22.8 million), behind members of the official Catholic Church at 68.1 million.

Yet, as human beings, those people (all of us) retain a spiritual hunger. So many former Catholics (and others) identify themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”

Today’s liturgy of the word gives us an idea of what that identification might mean. They call us to realize the fact that the Spirit of Christ resides in everyone – and in all of creation. It’s not dependent on going to church, being a Catholic or even a Christian. Rather, it depends on simply opening our eyes and on waking up to the Spirit’s presence everywhere, despite the self-induced sleep and blindness of “the world” – and, I would add, despite the corruption of hypocritical churches.

And where does the Spirit reside? The answer is surprising. The Spirit of Christ is closer to us than our jugular vein. John the Evangelist has Jesus say as much in today’s Gospel reading. Listen to the description again for the first time.

Jesus says:

  1. I am in the Father.
  2. You are in me.
  3. I am in you.

Could anyone be clearer about it? We are all temples. Our bodies, not buildings are the churches that matter. There is nothing in Jesus’ teaching about confession, ritual, priests, doctrine. It’s simply about opening our eyes and embracing the truth that God’s Spirit is like the very air we breathe. It’s like Paul will later say in his Areopagus speech about the “Unknown God” (Acts 17:28): Everyone lives and moves and has being in God’s Spirit.

Recognizing that and acting accordingly is what spirituality (vs. religion) is about. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, such recognition will have us keeping his commandments: to love God wholeheartedly and our neighbor as ourselves. And, of course, loving our neighbors as our self does not mean loving them as much as we love ourselves. It means loving them because they are our self – the Self that is one with God. Put more simply: All of us are one. That’s the essence of Jesus’ teaching.

Later on in Acts 17:28, Paul elaborates. He explains to Greek seekers in the Areopagus that their altar to the “Unknown God” represents an unconscious recognition of the God of Israel.

But that recognition can happen only if we become holy in the sense indicated in today’s first reading. There Philip (and later Peter and John) invoked Christ’s Spirit on Samaritans – the traditional enemies of Jews. Significantly, the apostles do so while laying hands on the Samaritans’ heads. Their action symbolically brings together the left and right sides of the brains of those they touch. The ritual shows that experiencing the Spirit calls not just for logic, but for intuition as well. The Spirit is the one who makes us whole, not simply right or left-brain dominant. “Holiness” means wholeness in that sense – integrating what we know logically and by intuition.

That’s what spirituality means!

I’m writing this at 3:00 Sunday morning. The Keepers is still haunting me and keeping me awake. I’m feeling disturbed, even angry, about the Church’s distortion of faith, God and the Spirit of Christ explained so simply in today’s readings.

Please excuse me for any lack of coherence here.  Blame it on the late hour. But don’t miss watching the film.

(Sunday Homily) Jesus’ Promise: Free Food for Single Moms; Mansions for the Homeless

Ryan

Readings for 5th Sunday of Easter: ACTS 6: 1-7; PS 33: 1-2, 4-5, 18-19; I PT 2: 4-9; JN 14: 1-12.

With last week’s passage of Trumpcare in the House of Representatives, one wonders what a “devout Catholic” like Paul Ryan is thinking. After all, Mr. Ryan’s health plan removes coverage from 24 million Americans while offering huge tax cuts to our country’s wealthiest. What God does he worship? What concept of Jesus’ Way does he have?

The question is pertinent because today’s liturgy of the word presents Jesus as identifying himself and his “Way” with knowledge of a God who would never support the House Speaker’s plan. Jesus says “I and the Father are one. Whoever has seen me has seen the father.”

Perhaps Mr. Ryan interprets that to mean that Jesus is God.

He shouldn’t. I mean, saying that Jesus is God presumes that we all know who God is. Actually, we don’t.

Oh, we can speculate. And theologians and philosophers throughout the world have done so interminably. Think of the Greeks and their descriptions of God as a supreme being who is all-knowing, omnipotent, and perfect. Such thinking leads to a concept of Jesus that is totally abstract and removed from life as we live it from day to day. That God is removed not only from the problems of healthcare, but from those of hunger and homelessness addressed in today’s readings.

Those selections do not say that Jesus is God, but that God is Jesus. It’s not that in seeing God one understands Jesus. It is that in seeing Jesus, one understands God. Jesus says, “He who sees me, sees the Father.”

The distinction is important. It literally brings us (and God) down to earth. It means that Jesus embodies God – inserts God into a human physique that we all can see and touch and be touched by.

If we take that revelation seriously, our gaze is directed away from abstract philosophical concepts that enable us to ignore life and the needs of the poor. We’re directed away from “heaven,” away from churches, synagogues, and mosques. Our focus instead becomes a God found on the street where Jesus lived among the imperialized, and the despised – the decidedly imperfect. In Jesus, we find God revealed in the offspring of an unwed teenage mother, among the homeless and immigrants (as Jesus was in Egypt), among Jesus’ friends, the prostitutes and untouchables, and on death row with the tortured and victims of capital punishment. That’s the God revealed in the person of Jesus.

Following the way and truth of that Jesus leads to the fullness of life the Master promises in today’s gospel reading. That fullness involved provision of food and shelter here and now. In fact, that’s been a recurrent theme in our liturgies of the word since Easter Sunday. Take, for instance, today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It shows us a faith community focused on providing food for single moms and their children. The first Christians worship a God who (as today’s responsorial puts it) is merciful before all else. That God, like Jesus, is trustworthy, kind, and committed to justice.

So we sang our response, “Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.” In doing so, our thoughts should have been directed towards the corporal works of mercy which the church has hallowed through the ages. Do you remember them?  Feed the hungry, they tell us; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; visit the sick and imprisoned, bury the dead, and shelter the homeless.

In fact, providing shelter – homes for the homeless – was so central for early Christians that it became a fundamental metaphor for the human relationship to God. (Remember those descriptions of early church life in ACTS 2:35 and 4:34, where homes and all property were shared in the primitive church.) So, today’s reading from First Peter describes the early community as a single house whose cornerstone is Jesus himself. Then in today’s gospel, John refers to Jesus’ Father as the one who provides a vast dwelling with many luxurious apartments. You can imagine how such images spoke to impoverished early Christians who would have been out on the street without the sharing of homes that was so important to early church life.

So don’t be fooled by the upside-down version of Christianity that allows politicians and those they trick to turn Jesus and his Way into some abstract after-life doctrine – that allows Jesus’ followers to turn their backs on the sick. That’s the comfortable ersatz faith that believes that Jesus is God. He is not.

Rather, God is Jesus. God is the one reflected in the lives and needs of the poor, the ill, and despised. With Jesus, the emphasis is on this world – on eating together, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, on elimination of poverty, and sharing all things in common. That was Jesus authentic Way – the one followed so faithfully by the early church focused on God’s mercy and the merciful acts it inspires. It should be our Way as well.

It is definitely not Paul Ryan’s way. Don’t allow him to claim that it is.