Our Lenten Call to Mysticism (Sunday Homily)

Enlightened Jesus

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: GN 12:1-4A; PS 33: 4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; 2 TM 1: 8B-10; MT 17: 1-9

Last week my homily centered on the stages of human development as described by Ken Wilber. His analysis is relevant again on this Second Sunday of Lent, which centralizes Jesus’ Transfiguration. Matthew’s account presents a literally enlightened Jesus. The Master is suddenly filled with brightness. His face shines like the sun; his garments become white as snow.

Jesus’ transfiguration is a call to an engaged Christian mysticism that is both deeply spiritual and ferociously active on behalf of the poor and oppressed among us. Given our world’s current crisis, that connection between the spiritual and activist dimensions of our faith could not be more timely.

Begin with Ken Wilber. You might recall that he understands the evolutionary process we are all called to traverse as starting with egocentrism, passing through ethnocentrism, advancing to world-centrism, and possibly arriving at Cosmo-centrism.

The world of the egocentric is that of children and childish adults. It is governed by magic and expresses itself in a pre-conventional morality. Before the age of seven or so, children believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy; they have little sense of morality.  Some have accused President Trump of inhabiting this space.

For their parts, and politically speaking, the ethnocentric identify with their national and/or religious tribe. Their world is governed by myth and exhibits a conventional morality. The morality of the ethnocentric is dictated by custom, and cultural expectations. Perhaps 40 to 70 percent of the world is ethnocentric.

In fact, many of us get stuck at ethnocentric stage – or even at egocentrism. Politically, socially, and economically, we’re pretty conventional people, and cannot understand those at more advanced stages of development.

The politics of world-centric people have moved beyond tribe and its religion. Their world is governed by reason, rather than by magic or myth. Their morality is post-conventional. For them, self-interest, national laws and religious prohibitions can be transcended by the demands of a larger sense of justice and love. All the great prophets (secular as well as religious) had no trouble breaking laws they considered inhumane. They were boundary-crossers who (in Jesus’ words) recognized that the Sabbath was made for human beings, not the reverse.

The cosmic-centered have entered the realm of Enlightened Masters like the Buddha or Jesus as depicted in today’s gospel. They embody the four basic insights of mysticism found in all the world’s Great Religions: (1) There resides a spark of the divine within every human being, (2) That spark can be realized (i.e. make a real difference in daily life), (3) It is the purpose of life to do so, and (4) Once that happens, the enlightened one begins to see the same spark in every other human being and in all of creation.

Cosmic-centered mystics are governed by compassion. They empathize with the egocentric, ethnocentric, and world-centric. They realize that they themselves have passed through those more primitive stages. They know that those behind them cannot even fathom the realities, joys, and ecstasies experienced by those at higher stages. They forgive rather than blame.

Wilber estimates that possibly 7% of humans today have reached Cosmo-centric consciousness. Only 10% is necessary, he says, for reaching a tipping point where cosmic-centered realities will be generally accepted as the leading edge of evolution.

In today’s gospel selection, Jesus enters that mystical realm, but he does so in a way that recognizes the need for action on behalf of God’s chosen people – the poor and oppressed. Jesus escapes the realm of time, where only the NOW exists and the illusions of past and future disappear. As a result, he’s able to converse with like-minded mystics (Moses and Elijah) from his people’s ancient past. Both of them emphasize the social justice imperative.

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

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

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

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

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

  • It is an essential Christian calling to seek enlightenment through cultivation of the interior life. The Enlightened Jesus calls us to daily meditation this Lent. There’s no other way to mystical consciousness.
  • At the same time, Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah highlights Christianity’s imperative to side with the poor – to take on their cause as our own. This suggests our doing what we can (by way of phone calls, demonstrations, contributions, lobbying, and teaching) to stop the deportation of immigrants, to restore health care and unemployment benefits for the sick and jobless – to see the world from the margins and periphery.
  • Finally, Jesus’ ever-present awareness of “the prophet script” requiring his own early death reminds us that the work of following our Master can never stop – there’s no retirement from it. The proximity or remoteness of death offers no excuse to relax.

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

(Sunday Homily) Jesus & His Friends: Slackers All

hippie-jesus

Readings for 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 49:14-15; PS 62: 2-3, 6-9; I COR 4: 1-5; MT 6: 24-34.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Homily: U.S. Christians Shouldn’t Be the World’s Most Violent People (But We Are!)

christian-violence

Readings for 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time: LV 19: 1-2, 17-18; PS 103: 1-4, 8, 10, 12-13; I COR 3: 16-23; MT 5: 38-48.

We’re living at a time characterized by military crisis; wouldn’t you agree? I mean we’re still in Afghanistan (our country’s longest war ever). Can you tell me why? We’re also fighting in Iraq and have been doing that one way or another since at least 1990. Then there’s Syria and Yemen – not to mention droning in Libya, Somalia, and who knows where else? And on top of that there’s saber-rattling about what Russia does in its backyard, and even about “our” rights to float battleships in the South China Sea – more than 7000 miles away from our shores. We spend more on war than all the other nations of the world combined, and are in the process of modernizing our nuclear weapons arsenal that our “leaders” once pledged to abolish.

And what has it all accomplished? Can you tell me that? Well, while it may make arms manufacturers richer and happier, here’s a short list of its downsides:

  • It kills millions of people – yes more than a million in Iraq alone since 2003!
  • It threatens the very future of the human race.
  • It contributes mightily to environmental destruction,
  • And to global warming as the U.S. military remains the largest institutional consumer of oil in the world
  • As well as to the creation of an unprecedented refugee problem,
  • It appears to motivate terrorists to respond in kind.
  • All of which seems to make us less safe rather than more so.

Doesn’t that seem crazy? Why do we put up with it? I mean to spend more than a billion dollars each day on war and to have absolutely nothing positive to show for it? NOTHING! And then instead of facing that colossal failure, to pledge to do even more of the same – forever and ever?

I’m hard put to think of anything crazier. And scandalously, it’s a nation that claims to be Christian that’s doing all of that – in the name of God and even of Jesus. The Muslims would have a hard time even remotely approaching that level of religiously-motivated violence!

Say, here’s an idea: why don’t we try following the actual teachings of Jesus as found in today’s Liturgy of the Word? I didn’t say “the teachings of the Bible” in general, but the teachings of Jesus.

I mean, in today’s Gospel, the Master takes pains to distinguish between the Bible’s warlike vengeful God and its Compassionate One. Jesus specifically rejects the one and endorses the other. For Matthew that rejection and endorsement was momentous – as significant as Moses reception of the Ten Commandments from his God, Yahweh. That’s why Matthew [in contrast to Luke’s equivalent “Sermon on the Plain” (LK 6:17-49)] has Jesus deliver his “sermon” on a mountain (5:1-7:27). The evangelist is implicitly comparing Moses on Mt. Sinai and Jesus on “the Mount.”

In any case, through a series of antitheses (“You have heard . .. but I say to you . . .”), Jesus contrasts his understanding of the Law with more traditional interpretations. The Mosaic Law demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but Jesus’ Law commands:

  • Turning the other cheek
    • Going the extra mile
    • Generosity with adversaries
    • Open-handedness to beggars
    • Lending without charging interest
    • Love of enemies

Matthew concludes that if we want to be followers of Jesus, we must also be merciful and compassionate ourselves. As today’s reading from Leviticus says, we are called to be holy as God is holy. Or as Jesus puts it, perfect as God is perfect.

And how perfect is that? It’s the perfection of nature where the sun shines on good and bad alike – where rain falls on all fields regardless of who owns them. It’s the perfection of the God described in this morning’s responsorial. According to the psalmist, the Divine One pardons all placing an infinite distance (“as far as east is from west”) between sinners and their guilt. God heals all ills and as a loving parent is the very source of human goodness and compassion. That’s the perfection that Jesus’ followers are called to emulate.

All of that is contrasted with what Paul calls “the wisdom of the world” in today’s excerpt from his first letter to the Christian community in Corinth. The world regards turning the other cheek as weakness. Going the extra mile only invites exploitation. Generosity towards legal adversaries will lose you your case in court. Open-handedness towards beggars encourages laziness. Lending without interest is simply bad business. And loving one’s enemies is a recipe for military defeat and enslavement.

Yet Paul insists. And he bases his insistence on the conviction that we encounter God in every human individual whether they be our abusers, exploiters, or legal adversaries – whether they be beggars or debtors unlikely to repay our interest-free loans.

All of those people, Paul points out are “temples of God.” God dwells in each of them just as God does in us. In the end, that’s the basis of the command we heard in the Leviticus reading, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Normally, our self-centered culture interprets that dictum to mean: (1) we clearly love ourselves more above all; so (2) we should love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.

But in the light of Paul’s mystical teaching that God dwells within every human being, the command about neighbor-love takes on much deeper implication. That is, Paul the mystic teaches that our deepest Self is the very God who dwells within each of us as in the Temple. We should therefore love our neighbor (and our enemy, debtor, adversary, and those who beg and borrow from us) because God dwells within them — because they ARE ourselves. They ARE us! To bomb them, to fight wars against them is therefore suicidal.

No wonder, then, that Paul predicts the destruction of the person who fails to recognize others as temples of God and harms them. Paul means that by destroying others we ipso facto destroy ourselves, because in the end, the God-Self dwelling within us is identical with the Self present in the ones we shoot, bomb and drone. That is a very high mystical teaching. It should be the faith of those pretending to follow Jesus. It should make all of them (all of us!) pacifists.

If we owned that truth, that would be the end of wars. Imagine if the world’s 2.2 billion Christians gave up our addiction to violence and simply refused to destroy our fellow human beings because we recognized in them the indwelling presence of God. Imagine if we stopped worshipping the God Jesus rejects – the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” War God – and embraced Jesus’ compassionate and loving All-Parent.

The resources freed up would be sufficient to literally transform this world into a paradise.

The U.S. Is Not Reagan’s “Shining City upon a Hill” (Sunday Homily)

reagan

Readings for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 58: 7-10; PS 112: 4-9; I COR 2: 1-5; MT 5: 13-16.

Today’s readings are about the nature of the light emanating from a shining “City on a Hill.” Jesus introduces that imagery specifically in today’s Gospel selection. In doing so, he alludes to the words of the prophet Isaiah (today’s first reading) which describe the City’s characteristics.

However most Americans don’t primarily associate the City on a Hill image with Jesus, much less with Isaiah. In fact, most cannot hear the phrase without thinking of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. In Reagan’s mouth, “City on a Hill” became a quintessential expression of American Exceptionalism. As such Reagan’s usage exemplifies how Republicans have hijacked and distorted Christian discourse.

Reagan however didn’t coin the City’s connection to “America.” John Winthrop, the Puritan leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had already done that in 1630. Standing on the deck of the flagship Arbella Winthrop told his shipmates, “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.”

Then in 1961 J.F. Kennedy quoted Winthrop’s words specifically as the new president addressed the General Court of Massachusetts. Kennedy added “. . . (W)e are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less fantastic than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within.”

After Reagan, Gary Bauer, the president of the Family Research Council, attempted to borrow some of the Reagan thunder by using his idol’s words. Bauer repeatedly used the “City on a Hill” metaphor as he attempted unsuccessfully to secure the Republican presidential nomination in 1999. Before him in 1997, Reagan’s adopted son, Michael, had already written a book about his father entitled The City on a Hill: Fulfilling Ronald Reagan’s Vision for America.

As for Reagan himself, here’s what he said about the image in his farewell speech to the nation in 1989:

“…I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still . . .”

These words show that Reagan’s image of the “City on the Hill” is one of pride, strength, harmony, peace, open markets and free immigration – all of it specially blessed by God. Noble ideals all. . . .

Nonetheless President Reagan’s policies proved questionably coincident with his words and especially with the biblical ideals expressed in today’s readings.

Think about those ideals.

In the selection from Isaiah, the prophet says the City on the Hill shines because its inhabitants:
• Share bread with the hungry.
• Protect the oppressed and remove oppression from their midst.
• Shelter the homeless.
• Clothe the naked.
• Remove from their midst accusation and malicious speech.

The Responsorial psalm seconds all of that, adding that the hilltop city’s just citizens:
• Lend (without interest).
• Give lavishly to the poor.

In today’s selection from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle himself identifies with the weak and fearful, not those who are “wise” according to the standards of the world. Paul goes on to contrast the world’s logic with what elsewhere he calls the foolishness of Jesus’ Spirit – which chose to identify with those on death row (I COR 1:23).

Finally, today’s Gospel reading has Jesus refer specifically to the “City on a hill” and the light that causes it to shine. Once again, it’s the “light” described by Isaiah – sharing bread, shelter, clothing, and money with the hungry, homeless, naked, impoverished and oppressed.

All of this has little to do with President Reagan’s version of an exceptionally blessed America. In fact, during his term in office Reagan:

• Consistently stigmatized the poor. (Reagan often told the story of a “welfare queen” in Chicago who turned out to be a figment of his speech writers’ imaginations. According to the story, she drove a Cadillac and had cheated the government of $150,000 using 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen social security cards and four fictional dead husbands. Once again, all of that was a lie.)
• Halved the budget for public housing.
• Closed shelters for the mentally ill.
• In so doing, created an epidemic of homelessness virtually unknown since the Great Depression.
• Spent the entire decade of the 1980s supporting oppressive governments Central America – specifically in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
• Oversaw the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, thus opening the publicly owned radio airwaves to dominance by privately financed right wing programs whose bread and butter soon became the “false accusations” and “malicious speech” Isaiah saw as incongruous with the light Jesus subsequently saw as characterizing the City on the Hill.
• Inspired his self-proclaimed acolytes (in our own day) to introduce savage reductions in Food Stamp programs for the hungry, and elimination of unemployment benefits.

And that’s the short list of the horrors of the “Reagan Revolution.” None of it has anything to do with Jesus’ vision of a City on a Hill. Rather Reagan policies fly directly in the face of that vision.

The point is that the right wing in this country (personified in Ronald Reagan) has hypocritically identified itself as somehow “Christian” while turning that tradition squarely on its head.

Progressives are missing the boat by surrendering to that hijacking of Jesus’ meaning and message, when in reality that message supports their cause, not that of their reactionary opponents.

It’s high time for progressives to go on the offensive by recognizing and employing the power of myth and image so successfully manipulated by the religious right.

To Make a Nation Great Again: Trump’s Cabinet vs. Jesus’ (Sunday Homily)

fishermen

Readings for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 8: 23-9:3; PS 27: 1, 4, 13-14; I COR 1: 10-13, 17; MT 4: 12=23

Well, it’s happened. Donald Trump is our new president. We saw the know-nothing real estate magnate, casino king, reality show star, and unrepentant assailant of women sworn in last Friday at noon. Many of us are still in shock.

As everyone knows, the new president’s announced program is to make America great again. His cabinet picks evidence his strategy. It’s to run the country “like a business.”

Look at them all. Every one sitting around the table where decisions will be made about our lives and the fate of the planet comes from the 1%. They are all billionaires, multi-millionaires, generals and Christian fundamentalists. (One of them boasts that killing is fun.) Ironically, they claim to prefer biblical science to what our world’s finest minds (including Pope Francis) tell us about the errors of “the American Way.” Evidently, for Mr. Trump the best and the brightest are the richest, most venal, and violent.

The new president’s cabinet picks reveal his underlying philosophy. It’s austerity for the poor (and the planet) complemented by welfare for the rich. They want to defund public schools, Medicare, Medicaid, and the EPA. They oppose raising the minimum wage. Meanwhile, they want to drastically lower tax rates for themselves. It’s the tired old “trickle-down” theory revisited with a vengeance, even though it’s been completely discredited. In his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis called the ideology homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at its root (59).

Yet many Christians (even Catholics) voted for Trump and see him as somehow the instrument of God!

Providentially, all of that is extremely relevant to the readings for this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (and first in the Extraordinary Time of the Donald).  That’s because today’s Gospel reading in effect records Jesus’ selection of his own “cabinet picks” as he begins his campaign to make his country great again. Today’s reading from Matthew records his selection of the first of his twelve apostles – the successors to the great patriarchs of Israel.

It’s no stretch to say that Jesus’ program was to “Make Israel Great Again.” In his day, the country could have no such pretensions. (In fact, it probably never was great.) It was a poor backwater – an obscure province of the Roman Empire.

Yet its prophets remembered days of prosperity, when God seemed to be on Israel’s side.

Those were all times of liberation from oppression specifically by the rich and powerful – the ancient analogs of Mr. Trump’s cabinet. The first glorious period followed after Yahweh freed slaves from Egypt under the leadership of Moses and Joshua. Another came in the 6th century, when the Persian monarch, Cyrus the Great, released captives from the long Babylonian Captivity of 70 years.

A third time of liberation and joy is the one Isaiah references in today’s first reading. The ecstasy he describes came in the 8th century BCE, when leaders from Israel’s Northern Kingdom returned home after a captivity (under Assyria) of some 20 years. Then, he says, bitterness and sorrow were turned to joy – specifically, for orphans, widows and resident aliens.

The bitterness began, Isaiah notes, in the regions where the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali lived.  That was in the region that by Jesus’ time became known as Capernaum – the city in the Galilee that Jesus adopted as his own (MT 9:1). Significantly, in today’s Gospel excerpt, Matthew has Jesus beginning his public career in the very place where Israel had first become oppressed – in that region of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Matthew’s point is hard to miss: Jesus has come to end all (especially foreign) forms of oppression with his announcement of the advent of God’s Kingdom. It would be a reality mirroring what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Prostitutes and beggars, n’er do wells, the halt and the lame would enter that kingdom, Jesus promised, before the rich and professionally holy (MT 21:31).

The Kingdom would represent a system that favored workers rather than rich landlords, bankers, and oligarchs. “Blessed are you poor,” Jesus would say, “for yours is the Kingdom of God” (LK 6:20). “Woe to you rich, you have had your reward” (LK 6:24). “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (MT 19: 16-24). All of these statements betray an approach that might be described as “percolate-up” rather than “trickle-down.”

So does Jesus’ selection of the New Israel’s 12 patriarchs. From the viewpoint of the world, it’s almost comic. In today’s reading, Jesus chooses ignorant, illiterate working men as successors to Old Testament saints like Joseph and Benjamin, Zebulun, Naphtali, and their eight revered brothers. In their place, Jesus installs smelly fishermen Peter, James, and John. Later he’ll add a reformed tax collector, and at least one insurgent against the Roman occupiers. Women who had no political power at all would be central in his band of followers.

All of that gives us a God’s eye view of how to make Israel, America – the world – great. Apparently, according to the divine order, it’s not by making the rich richer. To repeat: unlike Donald Trump, Jesus doesn’t begin by enlisting the services of his country’s great landlords, its generals, or its bankers. (As a poor peasant himself, the carpenter from Nazareth didn’t even have that option!) Instead, he starts from below, where all truly effective social change must start.

All such reflections give direction to those attempting to follow the Master from Capernaum today. Our readings call us to join Pope Francis and other critical thinkers in rejecting all forms of trickle-down theory. As the pope reminds us, history and common sense lead to that rejection.

Today’s Gospel supplies a more profound reason for doing so: trickle-down is not the way of the Jesus’ God whose universe is not run like a business, but is a gift system. The world itself is an expression of God’s generosity to all of us. And something is drastically wrong when workers and their children go hungry, when people are forced into prostitution to make ends meet, and when beggars cannot find work.

Something is also profoundly out-of-order when would-be followers of Jesus support politicians convinced that the way to make a country great is by giving even more wealth to the obscenely rich, while forcing austerity measures on the poor.

(Sunday Homily) Amy Goodman Shows Us How to “Pray Always”

dog-standing-rock

Readings for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: EX 17: 8-13; PS 121: 1-8; 2 TM 3:14-4:2; LK 18: 1-8;

Amy Goodman is in trouble. She’s the television journalist my wife and I had dinner with last summer. She’s the host of “Democracy Now: the War and Peace Report” – a daily news hour on the Pacifica Radio and Television network.

In the face of mainstream media’s refusal to cover significant grassroots events and issues, Ms. Goodman’s program has been called “probably the most significant progressive news institution that has come around in some time” (by professor and media critic Robert McChesney.) In addition to sources such as OpEdNews, Information Clearing House, and Alternet, “Democracy Now” is an invaluable fountain of information about issues that touch all of our lives.   Amy’s program is an example of what can be accomplished for peace and social justice in the face of overwhelming odds.

Anyway, Amy is in trouble. Or should I say that judges in the North Dakota legal system are in trouble. I mean the court’s black robes there are about to tangle with a woman who is stronger and more committed than all of them put together.

The issue at hand is a charge of criminal trespassing against Ms. Goodman. It stems from her coverage of Native American protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline – a nearly 2000 mile, multi-billion dollar construction stretching through North and South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois. The pipeline cuts across Sioux Tribe sacred sites and burial grounds at their Standing Rock Reservation. Defense of those holy grounds has brought together thousands of Native Americans from across the country and Latin America, as well as indigenous peoples from around the world.

On Labor Day weekend this year, while Amy was covering that resistance, security forces of Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the pipeline’s builders, set dogs on the Standing Rock “Protectors” (they refuse the name ” protestors”). She filmed a dog whose mouth was dripping with Protectors’ blood.

Amy’s honest reporting (protected by our Constitution’s First Amendment) proved offensive to ETP, their security forces, and to the local police. Hence the charges.

_____

Please keep all of that in mind as we attempt to understand today’s liturgy of the word. In the context of an unjust legal system, our readings raise the question of what it means to “pray always.” Jesus says it means persistently demanding justice. Amy embodies that meaning.

Actually, the readings compare what might be termed men’s intermittent way of praying with women’s unrelenting persistence. For instance, in today’s readings, men shockingly pray that God might intervene to slaughter their enemies.

In contrast, the woman in today’s gospel is in it for the long haul. She indefatigably confronts the power structure of her day as her way of “praying always.” That is, like Amy Goodman, she persistently works to bring her world into harmony with God’s justice. According to Jesus, that’s what prayer means.

Take that first reading from Exodus. . .  Did it make you raise your eyebrows? It should have. It’s about God facilitating mass slaughter. It tells the story of Moses praying during a battle against the King of Amalek. It’s a classic etiology evidently meant to explain a chair-like rock formation near a site remembered as an early Hebrew battleground.

“What means this formation?” would have been the question inspiring this explanatory folk tale. “Well,” came the answer, “Long ago when our enemy Amelek attacked our people, Moses told Joshua to raise an elite corps of fighters. During the course of the ensuing battle, Moses watched from this very place where we are standing accompanied by his brother Aaron and another assistant called Hur.

Moses raised his hands in prayer during the day-long battle. And as long as he did so, Joshua’s troops got the better of Amalek’s. But Moses would get tired from time to time; so he’d lower his hands. When he did so, Amalek’s troops got the better of Joshua’s.

“To solve the problem, Aaron and Hur sat Moses down on this stone you see before us. They held up his arms during the entire battle. That strategy saved the day. Joshua won his battle “mowing down Amelek and his people.”

So here we have a God who responds to ad hoc prayers and reverses history so that one group of his children might “mow down” another group of people he supposedly loves. That’s a pretty primitive concept of prayer (and of God), don’t you agree?

In today’s gospel, Jesus has another approach to prayer. For him, prayer is not an ad hoc affair – about changing God’s mind. Rather, “praying always” represents the adoption of an attitude — a way of life — that consistently seeks justice for the oppressed. Praying always means living from a place that won’t let go of justice concerns like those that drive Amy Goodman.

To illustrate that point for his own time, Jesus tells a comic parable about a persistent woman. (Remember, he’s speaking to people who have no power in a legal system, which, like ours favors the wealthy and powerful.)

“Imagine a judge,” Jesus said. “He’s like most of the judges we know. He doesn’t give a damn about the God of the poor, and he doesn’t care what people like us think of him.” (Already Jesus’ audience is smiling seeing a funny story coming.)

“But then along comes this widow-woman. Like all of us, she’s poor, and as usual, the judge pays no attention to her.” (Jesus’ audience recognizes the syndrome; they nod to each other.)

“But this woman’s a nagger,” Jesus says. (Now his audience is snickering and chuckling.)

“She just won’t let go. And she’s strong and aggressive besides. She comes back day after day insisting that she get justice against her adversary. And as the days go by, she gets more and more insistent – and threatening. So much so that the judge starts getting worried about his own safety.

(Laughter from the crowd . . .)

“’While it is true,’ the judge says to himself, ‘that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.’”

In other words, this macho judge is afraid of this poor widow; he’s afraid she’ll come and beat him up!

Can you imagine Jesus saying that without smiling broadly – and without the crowd roaring in laughter?

Anyway, here’s Jesus point: “If an unjust judge responds to the prayer of the poor like that, how do you suppose the All-Parent will respond when we ask for justice? The All-Parent will respond swiftly, Jesus says, because that’s who God is – the one who (as Martin Luther King put it) has established an arc of history that bends towards justice.

Prayer, then, is about reminding ourselves of that fact, trusting and having faith that in the long run justice and truth will prevail. Taking that position and acting upon it in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, takes great faith that’s harder and harder to find.

So Jesus ends his parable with the rhetorical question, “When the Son of Man returns, do you think he’ll find that kind of faith anywhere?”

What I’m suggesting here is that today we’re more likely to find that kind of faith, that kind of prayer, that kind of persistence in women rather than men. The example of Amy Goodman and her “War and Peace Report” inspires us to renounce ideas of a God who calls us to “mow our enemies down.” It inspires us to view prayer not as a now-and-then petition, but as a lifestyle based on a struggle for justice.

In any case, Amy Goodman seems even more determined than the widow in Jesus’ parable. In prosecuting her, the pro-ETP justice system has bitten off more than it can chew.

Thank God for persistent women! We men have so much to learn from them. A good start towards doing so would be to watch “Democracy Now” every day. It’s on line. Check it out.

A Wedding and Then a Funeral

phil-joann

Isn’t it strange how family events run together? Only two weeks ago, I officiated at the wedding of my niece, Jeanine. There I saw relatives I hadn’t laid eyes on in years and years. And then all of a sudden, just a fortnight later, most of us are together again – this time attending the funeral of Jeanine’s grandfather, my brother Jim’s father-in-law.

So this morning found me in St. Bartholomew’s Catholic Church in Newaygo, Michigan at a Mass celebrating the life of Phil Loppiccolo, the father of my dear sister-in-law, JoAnn. (She’s pictured above with Phil and his wife Millie on JoAnn and Jim’s wedding day 50 years ago.)

Phil was only 14 years my senior, which means he died at the age of 90. (Am I really that close to 90?!!)

In any case, all morning my mind was filled with thoughts of this man who led such an adventurous, fulfilling and productive life. I found myself wondering about his whereabouts now.

Phil was part of what Tom Browkaw called “The Greatest Generation.”  A year or so before the end of the Second World War, he joined the navy as a teenager. He wanted to do his part to defeat fascism. Then with the war over, he and Millie, contributed to the rebuilding of an economy devastated by the Great Depression.

Both of them were Michiganders and they took jobs in Detroit, the most dynamic city on the planet. Unlike today, it was the industrial center where presidents took foreign visitors to see the example par excellence of American can-do genius. Eventually, its African-American community made it an art mecca, producing an even more dynamic music admired and danced to throughout the world.

In Detroit, Millie and Phil worked in the transportation industry which was about to make a Great Leap Forward into a new era of truly mass transportation. As an engineer, Millie would eventually work for Learjet. Meanwhile, Phil took an administrative post at General Motors, where he worked for more than 30 years.

Can you imagine the sense of pride and purpose that this couple had as workers on the cutting edge of such dynamism? And all of this after Phil had done as much as he could to defeat what was (up until that time) western civilization’s greatest threat.

Phil retired from GM in his mid-fifties. My brother tells me that all his working life, his father-n-law had paid faithfully into a company pension plan. He had also bought a GM-sponsored healthcare arrangement promising to provide for him and Millie in their old age. Then came the Great Recession of 2008. And that was the end of that. Phil lost everything, while GM executives landed on their feet with golden parachutes and outlandish bonuses. Understandably, Phil never got over his sense of betrayal for that.

But professional accomplishments aside, it was in his family life that Phil and Millie Loppiccolo were most successful. As I said, they were the parents of JoAnn, who eventually warmly graced my brother Jim’s life. Together Jim and JoAnn had three children, Stephanie, Aaron, and Jeanine who turned out so splendidly. They gave Millie and Phil a total of those three grandchildren and seven accomplished and promising great grandchildren.

The Circle of Life is genuinely astounding in its tremendous beauty. As you can see, there is much to celebrate about the life of Phil Loppiccolo.

And now what? Phil has left us. And the truth is, we don’t know much for certain about the “heaven” he’s gone to.

In fact, we know very little about the “Eternal Life” promised by religions across the world. Uniformly, however they promise that life goes on. Death does not really exist, they say. It simply means changing rooms – going from one to another.

And that seems to hold true from what we can observe in nature. Just go for a walk in a forest. There you’ll see living trees and plants alongside apparently dead ones. However closer examination will show that what we consider “dead” is in reality teeming with life. Nothing really dies; it simply changes form.

The wise say that’s the way it is with human beings too. We apparently die. But we only change forms. Our spirits (our souls) come back to complete unfinished business in our assignment to become enlightened as modeled in the great Avatars like Jesus of Nazareth. He was the one who realized the unity of all creation. He lived that truth that constitutes our  true vocation.  He lived as though there were no difference between him and the most despised people in his culture – day laborers, prostitutes, lepers, insurgents, the poor and hungry, Samaritans, and hated foreigners. Again, that’s our vocation too. And eventually we’ll get it right.

The wise (like Jesus) console us by saying that whatever awaits us beyond this life is the absolutely best future imaginable for us. It is exactly what we need.

So if we take their word for it, if we believe what Nature itself tells us about “eternal life,” Phil Loppiccolo is precisely where he should be. He could not be in a better place – just as he was in the perfect place for him and for the rest of us this last time around.

Thank you, Phil, for all you have given us! May you rest in peace and enjoy Eternal Life!