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.

(Sunday Homily) My Granddaughter’s First Communion: What Then Must We Do?

Eva

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter: ACTs 2: 14A, 36-41; PS 23 1-6; I PT 2: 20-25; JN 10: 1-10.

I’m here for the weekend in Westport, CT, at my daughter’s and son-in-law’s beautiful home. The occasion is the First Holy Communion of our 8-year-old granddaughter, Eva Kathryn, whom we all adore. I couldn’t be happier for her.

The event, along with the readings in today’s liturgy of the word, are causing me to remember my own first communion. I’m recalling how my faith has developed since that momentous occasion. It’s making me reflect both on the beauty of childhood faith, and on the challenge of its adult version. If the human race is to survive, I realize, that adult version must prevail.

The difference between early faith and later developments is underscored in today’s readings. They call us as adults to abandon childish understandings of God, to grow up and work for non-violence in a world threatened by the deceit, murder, and general destruction of “a corrupt generation.”

Do you remember your First Holy Communion? I remember mine quite vividly, even though it happened about 70 years ago. I can still picture all of us third-graders at St. Viator’s school on Chicago’s Northwest Side, lining up for procession to the church across the parish campus. The girls, of course were in white dresses with traditional sheer veils. We boys were wearing dark blue “Eton Suits” with short pants. The water fountains in the school hallway where our procession formed were covered with white sheets to prevent any of us from drinking. In those days before Vatican II, even that would have broken our fast and disqualified us from participating in the event we had prepared for so intensely.

I so looked forward to receiving Jesus into my heart. Didn’t you? I firmly believed (as Eva, no doubt, does) that Jesus was actually contained in that snow white wafer. He would enter my mouth and reside in my body until the “appearances of bread” dissolved. Later I would frequently “visit” Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I became a “Knight of the Altar” and on occasions like the feast of Corpus Christi, would spend an hour in adoration before the parish’s golden, bejeweled monstrance. As I knelt there, I firmly believed that I was looking right at Jesus as I stared at the white Host encased in the glass “pyx.” One day, during my assigned “holy hour,” I had something like a mystical experience. I felt a special unity with Jesus residing there. I don’t know how to describe it. But I was, for a few moments, transported by a sense of oneness with God. Obviously, I never forgot it. I’ll bet you’ve had experiences like that too.

I wish all of that for Eva Kathryn. My heart went out to her this morning as she spoke of her upcoming First Confession. In some ways, I wish her beautiful faith would never change. But, of course, that’s like wishing she would never grow up. Her faith will inevitably change. Doubts will come. And if she’s like most, she’ll probably eventually throw her faith in Jesus’ “Real Presence” into the same waste basket with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. It’s all part of growing up.

Too bad. And I don’t mean it’s too bad that Eva’s childhood understanding will someday prove inadequate to the challenges of adult life. As I said, that’s inevitable and good. What I mean is: it’s too bad that she’ll predictably probably stop growing in her understanding of the Christian faith she’s trying to learn about in her Sunday School classes, just as she’s trying so hard to learn her multiplication tables in Montessori school.

I mean, isn’t it shocking that the faith dimension of life – arguably the most important, since deals with life’s meaning –  turns out to be the only one where our 8-year-old understanding is supposed never to change?

That would be like letting Eva say: “I’m satisfied with addition and subtraction; don’t tell me about multiplication or division. And I never want to hear the words ‘algebra,’ ‘trigonometry,’ ‘calculus” or ‘computer science’ even mentioned. That would be shocking and unforgivably childish in itself.

Even more importantly, it would describe exactly what’s wrong with our world. There we’ve been carefully schooled not to think about life’s meaning, especially as it touches questions of social justice, economics, politics, war, peace, and adult spirituality. That’s meant ignoring the world’s most powerful teachers: the ancient priestesses of the Great Mother God, Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day . . .

The Donald Trumps of the world (and there are a lot of them) are quite content with our ignorance. They’re happy with our refusal to grow up – with our retaining childish understandings of life – especially if growing up would cause us mobilize for social change. They somehow realize that the Jesus story and others I’ve mentioned have revolutionary power. It scares the hell out of them.

Today’s readings remind us of all that. They summon us to answer the question addressed to Peter and his ten colleagues in today’s opening selection from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s what Tolstoy asked in 1888, “What then must we do?” Peter’s answer was the same as Tolstoy’s: “Repent! In the name of the crucified Jesus, save yourselves from this corrupt generation!”

Those words are profound, but so familiar that their challenge can easily be overlooked. They mean: change your consciousness – the way you think; the way you look at the world. Reject everything “this corrupt generation” tells you. Instead, follow the example of Jesus whom, by the way, you’ve just crucified as a terrorist. Reject imperial authority. It’s not Jesus’ Way. (None of that is a stretch. Peter’s reference to “crucifixion” is central. It reminds us that the cross was the method of execution reserved for rebels against imperial Rome.)

To repeat: all of that is pivotal to this day’s readings. However, in the light of Eva’s first communion, there’s a lot more about the way faith changes and develops in adults.

Listen again to Peter’s description of Jesus in the opening reading from Acts. He says, “God has made Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.” When you think of it, that’s a pretty elementary understanding of Jesus. It clearly distinguishes God on the one hand and Jesus on the other. God elevates Jesus’ status from a crucified rebel to “Lord” and “Christ,” but only (according to this formulation) after Jesus’ execution. Again, that’s a very primitive “Christology,” probably the earliest we have. Scholars say it was formulated around the year 35 and retained in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles which was written much later – probably about the year 70. Here Jesus is a human being later elevated in status.

Contrast that with John’s Christology reflected in today’s gospel selection, written 30 or 40 years later. By that time (as we learn from the prologue to John’s gospel), Jesus has been fully identified as present from the beginning of time with God the Creator: “In the beginning was the Word,” John says, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . .” That seems to mean that by the time John wrote, believers were making no distinction between God himself and Jesus. Quite a change.

There’s still more to unpack here. In today’s reading, John has Jesus identifying with “the Good Shepherd” whom the author of the familiar Psalm 23 (today’s responsorial) had much earlier identified with Israel’s God, Yahweh. Think of the psalmist’s description. God is the original ecologist providing everyone with verdant pastures and clear waters. He gives everyone rest, refreshment, long life, abundant tables and cups overflowing with rich wines. God and (by John’s extension, Jesus) ends poverty (want); he provides shelter for all; he is good and kind. Those words are nothing short of revolutionary. Think of the world we’d create if the planet’s 2.5 billion Christians accepted that Jesus as our Lord and Savior!

Then in today’s second reading from First Peter, the author gets more specific. He identifies Jesus as a champion of justice (“He handed himself over to the one who judges justly”). Jesus (in contrast with John’s “false Christs” and our political “shepherds” today) is truthful. He doesn’t insult or threaten anyone.

And finally, in today’s third reading Jesus identifies himself specifically as non-violent. The false Christs, like the childish ersatz versions the world finds so comfortable, are warlike. In Jesus’ words, they are liars and thieves who slaughter and destroy. On the other hand, the Christ of adult faith is non-violent; he gives abundant life, rather than taking it away.

My prayer is that Eva Kathryn will one day discover that Jesus and accept him into her heart. That she and her post-millennial class of first-communicants will eventually do so, may be our world’s only hope.

Bernie Reminds Us that Christianity Is Communism & Jesus Was a Communist!

Bernie

Readings for the 1st Sunday after Easter: Acts 2:42-47; PS 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-29; I PT 1:3-9; JN 20:19-31

Recently, Mother Jones reported that self-identified socialist, Bernie Sanders, is the most popular politician in America. Almost 60 percent of Americans view the Vermont senator favorably.

Bernie’s even more popular among Democratic voters, blacks, and Hispanics. Eighty percent of Democrats, 73 percent of registered black voters, and 68 percent of registered Hispanic voters have favorable opinions of the 75 year old politician.

All of this signals an unbelievable achievement for an economic system we’ve been taught to hate. Long before the Second Inter-Capitalist War (1939-’45), and especially since then, Americans have been subjected to unrelenting anti-socialist propaganda from every side – school, church, media, politicians . . . And following the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union no one wanted to be even remotely associated with socialism, much less with communism.

But things have changed. Fifty-three percent of millennials now have a favorable view of socialism. Sixty-nine percent would cast their ballot for a socialist in a presidential election.

Again: in the light of all that negative indoctrination, that’s incredible. Even if poll-respondents are fuzzy about their understanding of socialism, the phenomena indicate that Americans are profoundly dissatisfied with socialism’s opposite, the reigning capitalist order.

All of that is relevant to today’s liturgy of the word, where the first reading reminds us that (as Mexico’s Jose Miranda says directly) socialism and even communism originated in Christianity. It doesn’t come from Marx and Engels.

In fact, Miranda goes further. He says Christianity is communism. And I think he’s right. Just look at today’s description of life among Jesus’ first followers after the experience they called his “resurrection”:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.”

Luke the evangelist repeats that refrain later in his “Acts of the Apostles” when he writes:
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to any as had need.” (Acts 4:32-36).

There you have it. The early Christians:

* Lived communally

* Rejected private property
* Including land and houses
* Instead held everything in common
* Pooling all their resources
* And distributing them “from each according to ability to each according to need.”
* As a result, they eliminated poverty from their midst.

Did you catch the operative words: they divided their property “among all according to each one’s needs?” To repeat, those are the words of the Bible not of Marx or Engels. In other words the formula “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” comes straight from the Acts of the Apostles. They have nothing to do with atheism. On the contrary, they have everything to do with faith.

They have everything to do with following Jesus who himself was a communist. He’s the one who said, “Every one of you who does not renounce all he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:3).

Jesus, not Marx, is the one who set concern for those in need as the final criterion for judging the authenticity of one’s life. He said, “I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, was a stranger and you took me in, was stripped naked and you clothed me; sick and you visited me, imprisoned and you came to see me” (MT 25: 35-36). Everything, Jesus insists, depends on recognizing his presence in the poor and oppressed and responding accordingly.

Of course it’s often pointed out that the Christian experiment in communism was short-lived. Jesus’ followers soon backed off from their early idealism. That observation is supposed to invalidate their communistic lifestyle as impossibly utopian and therefore no longer applicable as Christians’ guiding North Star. In fact, this objection is taken as justifying the persecution of the communism the text idealizes and recommends!

But the same argument, of course, would apply to the Ten Commandments in general or to the Sermon on the Mount – or to the U.S. Constitution for that matter. In our day (and in the course of their histories) all of those statements of ideals have only sporadically been lived out in practice. Should we throw them out then? Should we persecute those espousing the Sermon on the Mount ideals or observance, for instance, of the Fourth Amendment? Few in the Christian community or in the U.S. political world would make that argument.

Others anxious to distance themselves from the communistic ideals of early Christianity would point out that the communal life adopted by Jesus’ first followers was voluntary not imposed from above. In doing so, they point to another passage in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. That’s the one involving Ananias and Saphira – a couple whose life is exacted for claiming to have sold their property while actually keeping some of it back for themselves.

Referring to their property, Peter says to Ananias, “Was it not still yours if you kept it, and once you sold it was it not yours to dispose of?” (Acts 5:4) But (again as Miranda points out) what was optional was not selling their property – Christianity’s indispensable condition. What was optional was the choice to become a disciple of Christ. Choosing the latter option required practicing communism – and that under pain of death!

As for economic systems imposed from above. . .  Can you name one that isn’t?

How many of us have really chosen to live under capitalism? “None of us” is the answer. That’s because to make an informed choice, one must know the alternative. However, our families, schools, churches and civic organizations, our films and novels and news programs mostly conspire together to vilify alternatives and keep them hidden.

Besides that, our government and military have made sure that experiments in alternatives [like the one implemented in Cuba (1959) or Nicaragua (1979)] fail or are portrayed as failures – lest their “bad example” undermine capitalist claims to be the only viable system.

Even worse, our church leaders (who should know better) jump on the anti-communist band wagon and present Jesus as a champion of a system he would despise. Church people speak and act as if Luke’s passage from Acts had read:

“Now the whole group of those who believed lived in fierce competition with one another, and made sure that the rights of private property were respected. They expelled from their midst any who practiced communalism. As a consequence, God’s ‘invisible hand’ brought great prosperity to some. Many however found themselves in need. The Christians responded with ‘tough love’ demanding that the lazy either work or starve. Many of the unfit, especially the children, the elderly and those who cared for them did in fact starve. Others however raised themselves by their own bootstraps, and became stronger as a result. In this way, the industrious increased their land holdings and banked the profits. The rich got richer and the poor, poorer. Of course, all of this was seen as God’s will and a positive response to the teaching of Jesus.”

When are we going to stop this bastardization of Christianity?

First of all, we must face it: Jesus was a communist; so were his earliest followers after his death!

What then should are would-be followers of Yeshua the Christ to do? At least this:

* Read Jose Miranda’s manifesto, Communism in the Bible.

* If we can’t bring ourselves to sell what we have, give it to the poor, and live communally, at least conspire with like-minded people to share tools, automobiles, gardens – and perhaps even jobs and homes in an effort to reduce poverty and our planetary footprints.
* “Out” the “devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan and other congressional “Christians” whose budgets attempt to balance federal accounts by increasing the ranks of the poor whose poverty the communism of the early Christian community successfully eliminated.
* Pressure our government to get off Cuba’s back and allow it to experiment in prophetic ways of living that can save our planet.

I’m sure you can add to this list. Please do so below.

(Sunday Homily) As Our Bombs Fly, I Can’t Say “Happy Easter!” Can You?

MOAB

It’s Easter. But I can hardly bring myself to say “Happy Easter.” That’s because the world is once again rushing towards war – the antithesis of the holiday’s celebration of life. And it’s being led in that direction by a nation where 70-75% claim somehow to follow the risen Christ.

[BTW did you notice that just last Thursday Christian fundamentalists dropped (on Afghanistan tribal lands) the largest Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) since Hiroshima and Nagasaki?]

What hypocrisy!

But why the bombing in Syria? Get ready . . .  It’s because of our “enemy’s” deployment of weapons of mass destruction! In Syria, it’s about chemical weapons! It’s about a leader who absolutely must be removed from office because he so resembles Adolph Hitler.

Sound familiar?

What’s his name again?

Wrong if you say Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic, or Manuel Noriega. This time it’s Bashar al-Assad. What a beast! He’s killed so many children!

But what about the victims of their WMDs, you ask – the children poisoned?

What about the poisoned children in Flint Michigan, I might ask? We stand by silent as they’re allowed to drink water contaminated by lead. Oh, but I forgot; those are American children – and they’re mostly black. And as we all know, black lives don’t matter. They’re on their own. We obviously have greater responsibility for poisoned Syrian kids. (Imagine the unborn fetuses that were killed!) We simply must protect them all from death at the hands of the dictator du jour.

Apparently we’ve forgotten about the 500,000 children our sanctions killed in Iraq during the 1990s. That was o.k. It must have been. Madeleine Albright said so.

Apparently we’ve forgotten about the millions (!) of children in Yemen currently threatened by famine directly induced by the U.S.-Saudi coalition which has been bombing that country non-stop for more than two years. We do nothing for them except continue the mayhem.

But that’s o.k. too. After all, our leaders tell us bombing is the solution to any problem you might care to name. It’s all justified. And besides Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. Poor people (especially so far away) don’t really matter either. It’s the arms manufacturers Raytheon, Motorola, Boeing, and their billionaire owners who really count. They’re our neighbors – on Wall Street.

Have you noticed; the stock market is soaring?

And, of course, the record shows that our leaders have been right – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia. Aren’t we proud of the freedom, democracy, and peace our own WMDs have brought those benighted lands?

And (once again!) the press is cheerleading it all. Check the newspapers. Look at CNN. Hardly a single editorial has criticized the rush to war. Brian Williams finds our Cruise Missiles “beautiful.”

On Easter Sunday, doesn’t all of this seem ironic – and infuriating?

That’s because everything I’ve just described is terribly out-of-sync with the Christian faith so many Americans claim as their own. Jesus was non-violent. He refused to take up arms to defend himself or his friends. He had no fear of death. Or rather, he overcame his fear and endured torture and death on behalf of others. Protecting himself by sacrificing others was not Jesus’ Way. Quite the opposite.

Imagine if 70-75% of U.S. citizens refused to succumb to today’s war fever because of our faith in Jesus’ Way. Imagine if we called upon that faith to demand that President Trump sober up, stop the bombing, and abjure permanent war that is the cause (not the solution) of the Mid-East’s problems.

A faith like that would be worth embracing; it would make a difference. It might allow Jesus’ followers to say (and truly mean) “Happy Easter!”

(Sunday Homily) Marianne Williamson Raises Jesus from the Dead!

Marianne

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent: EZ 37: 12-14; PS 130: 1-8; ROM 8:8-11; JN 11: 1-45

Last week, the great spiritual teacher and social justice advocate, Marianne Williamson came through Berea like a Pentecost whirlwind. The message she brought connects intimately with today’s Liturgy of the Word that centralizes the political realities of resurrection from the dead in hopeless circumstances like those we’re currently experiencing in the United States.

Marianne Williamson had been invited to Berea College by my wife, Peggy, who heads the Women and Gender Studies program there. It was a real coup. Peggy worked for months trying to make it happen. In the realm of spiritual leadership, she (Marianne and my wife too) is a rock star.

Ms. Williamson not only presented an inspiring hour and a half convocation lecture with Q&A, she did the same thing for an hour at Peggy’s “Peanut Butter & Gender” luncheon series at noon. Afterwards, Peggy and I along with Berea’s president and seven of the college’s feminist leaders shared supper with Marianne at Berea’s famous Boone Tavern. To top it all off, Peggy and I drove Marianne and her secretary back to Cincinnati – a two-hour trip that was filled with wonderful conversation about (as my blog site puts it, “Things that Matter”). The whole experience was for me unforgettable.

Here are a few nuggets of Marianne’s wisdom:

  • In the Trump phenomenon, we’ve witnessed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome that has poor and middle class people identifying with and seeming to love their captors and oppressors.
  • Our country and the world are in unprecedented crisis. Our Titanic is headed towards huge icebergs represented by nuclear weapons, climate change, and chemical poisoning.
  • In such context, citizens, not politicians, are captains of our ship. There is nothing more important than our seizing control before it’s too late. Working to do so should fill our waking hours.
  • Young people, no doubt, have much to offer in helping our ship to reverse course. However, as community elders, others of us are Keepers of the Story. We remember the invaluable lessons of Malcolm, MLK, Dorothy Day, JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Gandhi, and Eleanor Roosevelt. We experienced the resistance of the Civil Rights Movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. We must share that experience and the understanding it generated.
  • If in doing so, you find everyone agreeing with you, you’re probably not speaking the truth.
  • On the other hand, when you hear the truth spoken (even if others are rolling their eyes), it’s incumbent on you to say, “Actually I agree with her,” if that’s the case. Studies show that speaking up like that encourages others to overcome inhibitions in advancing the conversation and speaking more truthfully.
  • In its attempts to speak truth, the left is making a huge mistake by not owning the power of faith. It was no accident that abolitionists and women suffragists were Quakers. It’s no accident that Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher or that Mohandas Gandhi was a Hindu prophet.
  • Imitate those people of faith. It’s no use waiting for the others to “come around.” The majority didn’t support abolition of slavery, women getting the vote, the Civil Rights Movement, gay marriage – or the American Revolution, for that matter. Such changes were effected by relatively small groups of highly committed idealists.
  • In fact, people are hungering for spiritual nourishment; and if they’re not offered authentic spirituality, they’ll accept its ersatz version.
  • That’s a reality that the political right has exploited. It has substituted a Prosperity Gospel that worships capitalism and money for authentic spirituality’s advocacy of social justice.
  • In the Christian context, the ersatz version has figuratively killed Jesus, who needs once again to be raised from the dead.

It’s that last point that especially connects with today’s liturgical readings – and with our current seemingly hopeless political reality. There to begin with, Ezekiel coins the concept of “raising from 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 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 her convocation address to Berea College students, Marianne Williamson embraced not only Ezekiel’s spirit, but that of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. She did so by rescuing them both from conservative forces whose version of Christianity has held center stage for the last 45 years. It’s that version, Marianne said, which has metaphorically killed the Jesus of the Gospels, who proclaimed the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom which belongs to the poor and all of God’s creation, not to the rich whom ersatz Christians 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, Marianne strongly implied 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 chillingly represented recently 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.

As Ms. Williamson indicated, no one can support policies like Ryan’s and claim at the same time to be a follower of Jesus.

In other words, Ryan on the one hand, and Marianne, and Jesus on the other are on completely different pages. While conservatives have buried the Gospel Jesus, today’s Gospel reading calls him back to life. It’s as if the followers of the authentic Jesus were standing before his grave shouting ”Come Forth!”

And so the tomb opens. And a Jesus who has been buried more than three decades stumbles out. And in doing so, he renews our faith.

Our faith is renewed because, as Marianne reminded us last week, we recognize in 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.

As Marianne Williamson constantly reminds her congregations, “There is no order of difficulty in miracles.” She  reminds us that united with our neighbors, we too, the People of God, possess the power to raise the dead.

So today, as we stand before the grave of God, the church, and Jesus, let’s echo her cry: “Jesus, come forth!” And then for the rest of our lives, let our actions make that resurrection happen in our own!