The Loaves & Fishes Story Is Not Just about Food: It’s about Just Food

loavesfish

Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 55: 1-5; PS 145: 8-9, 15-18; ROM 8: 35, 37-39 MT 14: 13-21

I’ve been vacationing in Michigan over the past three months. We’re living in the lovely cottage my wife, Peggy, inherited from her father in the northern part of the state.

The community there is called Canadian Lakes. It’s white, upper middle class, and very pretty. Peggy and I have spent large parts of our summers there ever since we we’ve been married. Our kids feel attached to the place. In a sense, they’ve grown up there.

In a word, life at Canadian Lakes is good. It’s water-centered and comfortable.

That makes today’s liturgy of the word (with its emphasis on the free gift of water) especially poignant for me. So does the fact that our lake home is located in Michigan with Detroit not so far away. Water’s a problem there.

You see, the relationship of Detroit’s poor to water is very different from ours in Canadian Lakes. Unlike our lakeside community, 44% of Detroit residents fall under the poverty line; 83% of the city’s population is African American. Unemployment in the former Motor City is well above 14.5%. Yet, Detroit’s (unelected) City Manager has been cutting off the water of poor people there. Regardless of your circumstances, if you’re an ordinary Detroit resident two months, behind on your bill, you will suddenly find yourself without water for drinking, bathing and flushing toilets.

If you’re rich, however, it’s a different story. Some of the city’s largest corporate water users are also behind on their water bills – even years behind. For instance high-end golf courses, the Detroit Red Wings, the city’s football stadium and more than half the city’s commercial and industrial users owe back water bills totaling over $30 million. No one is cutting off their water.

It’s also worth noting that the price of Detroit’s water system (administered by private contractors) is more than twice the national average and that the water cut-off plan is part of a scheme to move the city towards a completely privatized water system. Some see it as a measure intended to drive Detroit’s poorest from the city for purposes of gentrification.

Detroit’s water policy has gotten world-wide attention. A United Nations Human Rights office designated it a clear violation of fundamental human rights.

In the light of today’s liturgy of the word, we might also designate Detroit’s plan (and in general the commodification of God’s free gifts to all of creation) as a violation of God’s order. In fact, today’s liturgy of the word implies indictment of water privatization schemes and the market system’s practice of treating food itself as a commodity. These are gifts of God the readings say – part of God’s gift economy which is unbelievable in its generosity.

And why should we be surprised? The God celebrated in today’s responsorial is described as “answering all our needs.” According to the psalmist, that God is gracious, just, holy, merciful, slow to anger, hugely kind, and compassionate. S/he gives food to everyone and everything – without cost.

So why pay for water? Isaiah asks. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!” he says. “You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”

The point of contrasting God’s “gift economy” with our exploitive “exchange economy” is driven home in today’s Gospel episode from Matthew the evangelist. The famous “miracle of loaves and fishes” is actually a dramatic parable about God’s Reign and its order. The event may even be factual in the way I’m about to explain.

In any case, the tale is symbolic. It’s about the way the world would work if God were king instead of Caesar. In God’s dispensation, the gifts of creation – food and drink – are given to all without payment. God’s order contradicts our own where food production and even water delivery reap huge profits for the rich.

You know the story. Jesus meets with 5000 men in the desert (“not to mention,” Matthew says, “the women and children”). It’s late in the day. People are hungry and no-doubt getting restless. Jesus’ disciples offer a market solution to the problem of the crowd’s hunger. They say, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”

Jesus’ solution is different. He says. “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.”

The disciples almost mock Jesus’ suggestion. They say, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” We can imagine them rolling their eyes and smirking ironically in disbelief at Jesus’ naivety. Did he really think that the loaves and fishes they had would be enough to feed 5000 hungry men and their families?

Nevertheless, Jesus “ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.” Mark adds the detail that he had them break up into small groups of 50 and 100. In those smaller groups, people could see each other’s faces. Inevitably, they must have introduced themselves and shared some personal background, a joke, laughter and human warmth. Friendships blossomed.

Then Jesus “said grace:” That is, with everyone’s eyes on him, the Master Teacher broke the bread, divided the fish and gave it to those around him. No doubt he did so with gestures inviting the crowd to do the same.

As a result, the “miraculous” happened. And it wasn’t a “popcorn miracle” where five loaves suddenly popped into 5000 or where two fish suddenly multiplied by 3000. Instead, the good mothers in the crowd must have followed Jesus’ example. (Can we imagine any good Jewish mamma leaving home for a day in the desert without packing a hearty lunch for her husband and children?) The mothers opened their picnic lunches and shared them with the people they’d just gotten to know.

It was a “miracle of enough.” Everyone shared. So even the improvident were able to eat with plenty left over – 12 baskets Matthew tells us.

No, I’m not saying the miracle of loaves and fishes was just about food. No. As John Dominic Crossan puts it, the “miracle of loaves and fishes” was not just about food; it was about just food – about just distribution where no one is left hungry. Why? Because that’s the way God and his order are. God gives food, drink – the earth itself – to everyone and everything without cost.

That’s the order Jesus’ followers are called to imitate here and now.

And it is Detroiters (as well as many others throughout the world) who doing just that. They’re busy not only sharing water, but gardening and eating free from their plots on vacant lots – taking grateful advantage of God’s free gifts. You might be surprised to know that Detroit has the largest number of urban gardens in the United States.

We would do well to follow the example of people there and expand on it, taking advantage of God’s free gifts by:

• Opposing water privatization schemes
• Supporting local farmers
• Gardening
• Composting
• Installing water catchment systems
• Heating water (and our homes) with solar energy
• Bicycling to work
• Getting to know our poor neighbors
• Sharing food with them
• Even paying their water bills
• Opposing military spending increases while U.S. citizens go without water.

To repeat: today’s readings are not just about food and drink; they’re about just food and drink. They’re about sharing God’s free gifts rather than turning them into commodities to benefit the 1%.

The Battle for the Bible: What God Do You Worship, Jesus’ or Mr. Trump’s?

Early Church

Readings for Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: I KGS 3: 5, 7-12; PS 119: 57, 72, 76-77, 127-130; ROM 8: 28-30; MT 13: 44-52; http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/072714.cfm

Do you ever wonder how those claiming to be Christian can support rich billionaires like Donald Trump and those with whom he’s surrounded himself? How can they vote for those who would deprive them of health care, and give tax breaks to the already super-rich, especially when such policies end up being funded by cut-backs in programs that benefit non-billionaires like themselves — programs like Medicare, Medicaid and environmental protection?

Today’s liturgy of the word suggests an answer. It presents us with what Chilean scripture scholar, Pablo Richard, calls the “Battle of the Gods.” The conflict embodies contrasting ideas about the nature of God and God’s order as found within the Bible itself – as well as in today’s “America.”

One concept of God belonged to the rich such as Israel’s Kings, David and Solomon – ancient analogues of Donald Trump and his friends. The other belonged to the poor who surrounded Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth. They were working stiffs like you and me, along with n’er-do-wells: the unemployed, poorly-paid, sick, disabled, and underemployed. Many were homeless street people and street-walkers. To them Jesus embodied and spoke of a God unrecognizable to David, Solomon, or today’s right wing.

The contrast emerges as today’s readings juxtapose the dream of Solomon, the representative par excellence of Israel’s 1% in our first reading, over against Jesus’ own words about the contrasting nature of God’s Kingdom in today’s Gospel selection. In the latter, Jesus calls his would-be followers to a profound paradigm shift – away from one that lionized the imperial order to a divine kingdom in in which the poor prosper. The former was embodied not only in the Roman empire of Jesus’s day, but in Israel itself. Its leaders a thousand years earlier had hijacked the Mosaic Covenant that contradicted their New Imperial World Order.

In today’s first reading Solomon’s court historians mask the hijacking by predictably identifying their employer as “the wisest man ever,” just as before him they had identified Solomon’s cruel and womanizing father, David, as “a man after God’s own heart.” In this royally stolen form, the Covenant connected God and the royal family. It assured a royal dynasty that would last “forever.” It guaranteed God’s blessings on Solomon’s expansionistic policies.

The covenantal truth was much different. In its original Mosaic form (as opposed to the Davidic bastardization), the Covenant joined Yahweh (Israel’s only King) and escaped slaves – poor people all – threatened by royalty and their rich cronies.

The Covenant’s laws celebrated in today’s responsorial psalm protected the poor from those perennial antagonists.  For instance, “Thou shalt not steal,” was originally addressed to large landowners intent on appropriating the garden plots belonging to subsistence agriculturalists.

Despite such prohibitions, those who established Israel’s basic laws knew the power of money. The rich would inevitably absorb the holdings of the poor as did David and Solomon. So Israel’s pre-monarchical leaders established the world’s oldest “confiscatory tax.” It was called the “Jubilee Year” which mandated that every 50 years all debts would be forgiven and land would be returned to its original (poor) owners.

The advent of a Jubilee Year represented the substance of Jesus’ basic proclamation. No wonder the poor loved him. No wonder the refrain we sang together this morning repeated again and again, “Lord I love your commands.” That’s the refrain of the 99% locked in life-and-death struggle with the rich 1% represented by Solomon and his court.

In today’s Gospel selection, Jesus indicates the radical swerve necessary for establishing God’s kingdom understood in Jubilee terms. It involves “selling all you have” and buying into the Kingdom concept as if it were buried treasure or a pearl of great price.

That’s the kingdom – the world order we’re asked to believe in, champion, and work to introduce. It’s what the world would be like if God – not David or Solomon – were king.

In our own country, it’s what “America” would be like if our politics were shaped by God’s “preferential option for the poor,” instead of Mr. Trump’s preferential option for his dear 1%.

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

G20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all quite insane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ten Commandments: God’s and The Donald’s (Sunday Homily)

trump-commandments
Readings for 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 15: 15-20; PS 119: 1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; I Cor 2: 6-10; MT 5: 17-37.
The emphasis in today’s liturgy of the word is on the wonders of God’s law. “Keep the commandments; no one has a license to sin,” the first reading from Sirach intones. “Walk blamelessly in God’s law; observe its decrees; delight in its wonder,” sings the psalmist in today’s responsorial. And then in the Gospel reading Jesus presents himself as the defender of even the least of the commandments. Break the least, he says, and you’ll be least in God’s Kingdom.
On hearing all of this, I couldn’t but squirm on behalf of Christian Trump supporters who respect what they consider God’s Word. After all, The Donald seems to live by his own rules. And those guidelines don’t seem to have much to do with the Bible’s Ten and the delight, joy, and fulfillment today’s readings suggest infallibly result from observance of the Decalogue. Or as comedian, Bill Maher put it during the campaign season, “It’s hard to bring up the Ten Commandments when your candidate has spent most his life breaking all of them.”
On the other hand, Richard Dawkins, a sworn enemy of Christianity has formulated his own Ten Commandments. Ironically, Dawkins’ rules are more in harmony with today’s delight-full estimation of God’s Law. In fact, they seem more worthy of Christian support than the one’s Mr. Trump apparently lives by.
So just for fun, in the light of today’s readings, let’s contrast the two sets of commandments, and see what we can learn. It might be that Dawkins’ natural law commandments are more promising in terms of Nature’s delight, joy and peace than what we hear implicitly proclaimed by casino king Donald Trump and his Christian followers.

Begin with Mr. Trump. Here’s how humorist Neel Ingram compared the Bible’s Ten Commandments with what seems to be their Trumpian counterparts. (Ingram hosts a website called Chewing The Fat With God). Using Trump’s own words, Ingram writes:

Commandment 1: You shall have no other gods before Me.

Commandment 1 (Trump Edition): I won the popular vote… I’m really smart. I have the best words. Best words. Believe me.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Commandment 2: You shall not make for yourself a carved image of Me.

Commandment 2 (Trump Edition): You shall not publish unflattering photos. Giant portraits are okay if they’re of Me. For Me.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Commandment 3: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

Commandment 3 (Trump Edition): You shall not mock me, the ratings machine, Donald J. Trump, or I will declare you boring and unfunny. Bigly.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Commandment 4: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Commandment 4 (Trump Edition): I proclaim a National Day of Patriotic Devotion in my honor. A great day. Best day.

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Commandment 5: Honor your father and your mother.

Commandment 5 (Trump Edition): My parents… great people… truly great… great, unbelievable parents. I’m a really good father. My children really like me — love me — a lot.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Commandment 6: You shall not murder.

Commandment 6 (Trump Edition): Murder is a terrible crime. Don’t murder. Murder’s not good. Bad!

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Commandment 7: You shall not commit adultery.

Commandment 7 (Trump Edition): Adultery — I don’t think it should be done. Don’t screw around unless she’s hot as sh*t and you think you’ll get away with it.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Commandment 8: You shall not steal.

Commandment 8 (Trump Edition): Don’t steal. Do a deal. My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy. I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Commandment 9: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Commandment 9 (Trump Edition): False witnesses are like fake news. Media can’t be trusted. Serious bias — big problem! Sad.

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Commandment 10: You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s.

Commandment 10 (Trump Edition): Don’t covet. I’m really rich. When you’re really rich there’s nothing to covet. Except p*ssy. When you’re a star you can do anything. Grab them by the p*ssy. It’s amazing. Terrific.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Mr. Trump’s outrageous profanity aside, now take a look at what today’s readings have to say about God’s law. All of them (and especially Jesus’ words) suggest that “God’s Law” has nothing to do with Mr. Trump’s guiding principles. Neither is it written in stone. Instead, God’s commandments are enshrined deep in the human heart. And human happiness is impossible without observing that law which in its essence is no different from nature’s law.

That’s the line Richard Dawkins takes. Beginning with The Golden Rule, he lists his Ten Commandments in the following words:

  1. Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you
    2. In all things, strive to cause no harm
    3. Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
    4. Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
    5. Live life with a sense of joy and wonder
    6. Always seek to be learning something new
    7. Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
    8. Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
    9. Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
    10. Question everything

Dawkins also has something to say about that fraught area of sexuality which evidently so concerns D.T. and his Christian friends. But whereas The Donald emphasizes power and exploitation while his friends emphasize prohibition and suppression, Mr. Dawkins’ commandments stress the joy and freedom centralized in today’s readings. Dawkins writes:

  1. Enjoy your own sexual life (as long as it does not harm to others), and let others enjoy their sexual lives in private according to their own inclinations which in any case are none of your business.
    2. Don’t discriminate against or oppress anyone because of their sex, race or (insofar as possible) species.
    3. Don’t indoctrinate your children. Teach them to think for themselves, how to weigh evidence, and how to disagree with you.
    4. Respect the future beyond the temporal limits of your own life.

Now those laws are “delightful,” wouldn’t you agree? They seem to make sense because they reflect human nature and nature’s laws. Their observance could bring the world together rather than tearing it apart on the basis of supposedly revealed religious dogmas.

That’s what Roman Catholic (but suspended) theologian, Hans Kung thinks. He says that such a “global ethic” is necessary to finally end the armed conflicts that characterize our age. Towards that end, Kung has articulated four principles: (1) International peace is impossible without peace between religions; (2) there can be no inter-religious peace without inter-religious dialog; (3) there can be no inter-religious dialog without agreement about a global ethic, and (4) our world cannot survive without such an ethic that is universally accepted.

The United Nations seconds Dr. Kung. It boils down his desired global ethic to just four basic “commandments”: (1) Don’t kill; (2) Don’t rape; (3) Don’t lie, and (4) Don’t steal.

Could it be that Christians have more to learn about God’s law from an atheist than from the authoritarian so many Christians and Christian pastors evidently support?

In any case, while the latter promises eternal conflict, the former holds hope of dialog, mutual understanding, and cessation of hostilities.

The choice is ours: Trump’s self-serving law or God’s law written in our hearts.

Would Jesus Celebrate Independence Day?

Jesus Revolutionary

 Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 66: 10-14c; Ps. 66: 1-7, 16, 20; Gal. 6: 14-15; Lk. 10: 1-12, 17.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m on the right path. Do you ever think that about yourself? I’m talking about wondering if your whole “take” on the world is somehow off base.

My own self-questioning has been intensified by my blogging over the last 15 months. For instance I recently wrote a piece on why I refused to celebrate the 4th of July. My thesis was that the U.S. has lost its way, turned the Constitution into a dead letter, and made its claims to democracy meaningless. We are rapidly moving, I said, in the direction of Nazi Germany. All of that is contrary to the Spirit of 1776. So there’s no point in celebrating Independence Day as if Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning didn’t exist.

One person kind enough to comment said she lost all respect for me as a result of what I had written. Others have told me that my message is just a poor man’s left-wing version of the ideological nonsense spouted by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Even people close to me have referred to what I write as diatribes, screeds, and rants. I hope that’s not true.

What is true is that as a theologian, I’m attempting to write “About Things That Matter” (as my blog title puts it) from a self-consciously progressive (i.e. non-conservative) perspective – or rather from a theological perspective that recognizes that following Jesus is counter-cultural and requires a “preferential option for the poor” — not the option for the rich that “America” and its right wing versions of Christianity embrace.

I adopt this position in a national context that I recognize as anti-gospel – materialistic, individualistic, extremely violent, and pleasure-oriented. Or as my meditation teacherEknath Easwaran says, our culture refuses to recognize that we are fundamentally spiritual beings united by the divine core we all share. At heart, we are 99% the same in a culture that tells us we’re 100% unique. Jesus’ values are not the American values of profit, pleasure, power, and prestige.

Instead what Yeshua held as important is centered around the Kingdom of God – a this-worldly reality that turns the values of this world on their head. The Kingdom embodies a utopian vision that prioritizes the welfare of the poor and understands that the extreme wealth Americans admire is a sure sign that those who possess it have somehow robbed others of their due.

As a possessor of extreme wealth myself (on a world-scale) each time I read the gospels – or the newspaper – I feel extreme discomfort. In other words, it’s Jesus’ Gospel that makes me think I’m on the wrong track. But it’s not the one critics have in mind when they suggest I temper my positions.

Instead, consideration of Jesus’ words and deeds convince me that I’m not radical enough. I do not yet occupy a position on the political spectrum respectful enough of the poor. I’ve forgotten that life outside God’s Kingdom (“Jerusalem”) is “Exile” in God’s eyes (as today’s first reading recalls). The liberation from slavery referenced in this morning’s responsorial psalm has lost its central place in my spirituality.

Our culture might say, that by all this I mean that I’m not far enough “left.” Be that as it may. The truth is that insofar as my daily life doesn’t reflect Jesus’ utopian values, I should feel uncomfortable.

Today’s second and third readings reinforce my discomfort. They highlight the conflict between the values of Jesus and those of “the world” – of American culture in our case. In fact, the world finds it hard to understand Jesus’ real followers at all. And why not? For all practical purposes, our culture denies the very existence and /or relevance of spirituality to everyday life – at least outside the realm of the personal.

In today’s excerpt from his Letter to Galatia, Paul says the world considers the Christian life not even worth living. That’s what Paul means when he says that in Christ he is crucified to the world (i.e. in the world’s opinion). He means that as far as the world is concerned, he as a follower of Jesus is already dead because of his rebellion against the values of Rome. Crucifixion, after all, was the form of torture and capital punishment reserved for insurgents against the Empire.

But then Paul turns that perception on its head. He writes that his accusers are wrong. In reality, it is life lived according to Roman values that is not worth living. Paul says, “As far as I’m concerned, the world has been crucified.” He means that what Rome considers life is really death – a dead end. It constitutes rebellion against God’s Kingdom, the antithesis of Rome.

In today’s Gospel selection Jesus describes the lifestyle of those committed to God’s Kingdom. He sends out 72 community organizers to work on behalf of the Kingdom giving specific instructions on how to conduct themselves. They are to travel in pairs, not as individuals. (Companionship is evidently important to Jesus.) Theirs is to be a message of peace. “Let your first words be ‘peace’ in any location you frequent,” he says. He tells his followers to travel without money, suitcase or even shoes. He urges them to live poorly moving in with hospitable families and developing deep relationships there (not moving from house to house). They are to earn their bread by curing illness and preaching the inevitability of God’s Kingdom which the world routinely rejects as unrealistic.

Jesus’ followers are to spread the word that the world can be different. God should be in charge, not Caesar. Empire is evil in God’s eyes. So peace should replace anger and violence; health should supplant sickness; shared food and drink should eliminate hunger. Those are Jesus’ Kingdom values.

And the world rejects them. Not only that, Jesus’ “lambs among wolves” imagery recognizes that the world embodies an aggressive hostility towards followers of Jesus. It would devour them – so different are its values from the Master’s.

So maybe it shouldn’t surprise any of us when we’re accused of being extreme – as communists or utopians or hippies – if we’re attempting to adopt the values of Jesus.

After all, they thought Jesus was crazy. They thought he had lost his faith. They considered him a terrorist and an insurgent.

Then in the fourth century, Rome co-opted Jesus’ message. Ever since then, we’ve tamed the Master.

As our culture would have it, Jesus would have no trouble celebrating July 4th.

Am I mistaken?

Pope Francis, Donald Trump and the Revelation of Pentecost (Sunday Homily)

Trump & Frank

Readings for Pentecost Sunday: ACTS 5: 2-11; PS 104: 1, 24, 29-31, 34; 1COR 12: 3B-7, 12-13; JN 20: 19-23.

So who do you think is more outspoken, Donald Trump or Pope Francis? Which one should followers of Jesus listen to?

That question was sharpened a few weeks ago, when Pope Francis implied that Donald Trump is not a Christian. Responding to a reporter’s question, the pontiff lit up the internet when he said about Trump, “Anyone, whoever he is, who only wants to build walls and not bridges is not a Christian.” Francis added, “Vote, don’t vote, I won’t meddle. But I simply say, if he says those things, this man is not a Christian.”

The pope’s comment came at the end of Francis’ six-day trip to Mexico. There he celebrated Mass with 300,000 faithful in attendance near the Mexican-U.S. border. He used the occasion to decry the “human tragedy” of worldwide migrations of people fleeing violence, war and the effects of climate change. The pope’s analysis, of course, conflicts with Mr. Trump’s who sees immigrants as rapists, drug-dealers, and terrorists.

Francis’ comments drew a quick response from The Donald. He called the pope’s charges outrageous and accused him of being a pawn of the Mexican government.

While Francis’ words were surprising and the response predictable, both provide occasion for a Pentecost reflection on what it means to be a baptized and confirmed Christian in a world awash with refugees from U.S. bombings and the effects of neo-liberal overconsumption.

That’s because the emphasis in today’s readings is precisely on internationalism. The Kingdom of God, the readings tell us, has no borders. It is open to everyone regardless of nationality, race, occupation or gender. Moreover, the Kingdom of God is a matter of this world – of the Body of Christ.  It is not about some disembodied reality up in the sky.

That twofold message starts with today’s opening reading from the Acts of the Apostles with all those strange identity references that readers usually stumble over. Jews, we are told who were present on that first Pentecost were “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs.”

Then in today’s second reading, Paul goes even further. God’s Kingdom, he says, isn’t just for Jews. In fact in God’s eyes national distinctions, economic status, and gender identity have been erased for those who accept the Gift of God’s Spirit. Paul writes: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.” Elsewhere (Galatians 3:28) he puts it even more directly: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul’s message was a consistent theme in the life of Jesus. He healed and forgave, loved and taught Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, street walkers, lepers, tax collectors, and even on occasion members of the Roman occupying forces.

Notice too Paul’s words about “body” insert the reception of Jesus’ Spirit into the earthly realm of real life and politics. True, Paul speaks of “spiritual gifts,” but he even more emphatically insists that those gifts must be “manifest” in “service” meant to “benefit” others. We are members of Christ’s “Body,” Paul tells us. That is, we are all somehow living “in Christ” – in God, we might say. The question is, do we recognize that reality or not?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us more specifically where in the world we encounter his embodied spirit. It happens first of all in the community of peacemakers. Jesus’ first words after his resurrection are about peace. “Peace be with you,” he says.  Then he immediately shows his pierced hands and side to his friends. In doing so he seems to remind his followers that he will forever be found in the victims of war and imperialism. That includes refugees from imperialist wars and excess consumption as well as in victims of torture and capital punishment like Jesus himself.

Is such understanding of Pentecost too political? Donald Trump might think so. Pope Francis does not. Francis himself has pointed out that Aristotle was correct in saying that human beings are political animals. So to be branded “political” is to have one’s humanity recognized. The pope said he is proud to be branded political.

So would-be followers of Jesus are presented with a choice on this particular Pentecost.  Are we to follow Pope Francis or Donald Trump? The choice is ours.

More accurately, do we recognize that we are living not “in America,” but “in Christ?”  Do we recognize (as John Oxenham put it more than 100 years ago) that

1 In Christ there is no east or west,
in him no south or north,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.

2 In Christ shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find;
his service is the golden cord
close-binding humankind.

3 Join hands, disciples of the faith,
whate’er your race may be.
All children of the living God
are surely kin to me.

Ascension Sunday: What’s The Purpose of Christianity? (Sunday Homily)

Ascension

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

This is Ascension Sunday. For us Catholics, it used to be “Ascension Thursday.” It was 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 (1962-1965) 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 (Christianity) 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?

(Discussion follows.)