Thursday of the Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 482

For our struggle is not with flesh and blood
but with the principalities, with the powers,
with the world rulers of this present darkness,
with the evil spirits in the heavens.
Therefore, put on the armor of God...

I found a coffee mug in the VA hospital, a "premium" offered by salespeople as they market their wares. On one side of the cup in prominent letters it reads: "The One to Start With; the One to Stay With." On the back side "Oxycontin."

I show this cup to the Veterans in our substance abuse  program to remind them that "our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness."

The marketing of Oxycontin has been controversial for several years. Many suspect drug manufacturers, marketers and doctors of exploiting patients as they push this opium-based pain relief. They manufacture not only the drug but also the research that proves it is safe, using tactics similar to those of the cigarette industry.
Many have made a fortune and retired -- in some cases to Canada -- before the inevitable consequences of drug addiction catches up with them. They have pursued the American dream of making money with opioids because it's not yet illegal. 

Permit me to quote myself, "If you think you can do well by doing good, be very, very careful!" Lots of people did well my marketing opioids; I'd hate to be in their shoes on Judgement Day. 

Should the United States be a moral country; should our laws strive to protect people from mischief? Most citizens would say yes but, when we're confronted with the marketing of "safe opiates" we have to wonder. Lawyers, of course, will assure us the law has nothing to do with morality. It's only a game of making profits while staying within the guidelines.

Jesus urged to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves in a world such as ours. It's not a safe place. Naiveté is neither innocent nor blameless. The "armor of God" includes God's wisdom, which requires the disciplines of caution and critical study in dealing with a corrupt world. 

Wednesday of the Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 481

Masters, act in the same way towards them, and stop bullying,
knowing that both they and you have a Master in heaven
and that with him there is no partiality.

One of our student chaplain at the VA, reflecting on the program and her experience, said, “All my training has told me not to be vulnerable; it came as a surprise that I should be vulnerable as a chaplain.”

Saint Paul voiced no opposition to the institution of slavery in his Letter to the Ephesians. The ancients knew their social institutions as “the way things are.” They had no formal study of sociology or economics. Slavery could no more be dismantled than they might imagine a fifth dimension or the space/time continuum. But the Apostle drove a stake through heart of slavery when he told Christian slave owners to stop bullying.

We’re still trying to imagine life without bullying. Can a government operate without bullying? Could a war be fought? Could a company be managed or children be reared without bullying? Can we imagine a society flowing like people during the Monday morning commute, watching one another and cooperating for the common goal of getting there alive and on time?

The United States was founded on bullying Native Americans out of their homelands, on imported slaves and indentured servants. We entertain ourselves with bullying games like football and hockey. Many people sport sidearms in public just to show how they're prepared to deal with conflict. 

And we tell our children "Don't bully?" You're kidding, right? 

Saint Paul's advice to slaves and their masters has been dismissed by most Christians in this country. They figure he gave this counsel to a strange people in another time and place; it has nothing to do with us. 

I think we should pay attention to his teaching. He urged Christian slaves and masters to work together so that they could demonstrate how God's people love one another. They do not bully one another; they do not take advantage of one another's vulnerability, as slaves are wont to do in dealing with the masters. 

They cooperate and communicate for the common good; they watch one another like dancers, moving gracefully and purposefully. They edify non-Christians by their harmonious relationships. Where there are different levels of authority -- as there always are among humans -- they never forget their standing before the Father of All, whose sunshine falls on the good  and the bad; whose rain falls on the mighty and the weak. 

Tuesday of the Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 480

Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.

I suppose many people, when they think of Saint Paul's letter to the Ephesians, think first of this controversial passage. They might overlook or dismiss everything else about the epistle, which would surely leave them poorer.

But the passage about marriage is controversial and that's good for two reasons: marriage has always been difficult and its basic foundations have been always challenged; and secondly, our religion never shies from controversy. Anyone who thinks Christian religion should always be reassuring can only expect disappointment. Caveat emptor!

The real challenge of this passage is probably not, "Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord." but the more general, "Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ."

True, there are some Christians and Christian churches who espouse the subordination of women, but I suspect they don't read this blog. Others might denounce Paul's teaching as chauvinistic, but they don't read this blog either.

That leaves you and me with the real challenge -- the "double-edged sword" -- that confronts us night and day, that readiness to be subordinate to one another.
Several years ago I was engaged in a protracted discussion about a particular course of action. Eventually someone told me, "Ken, we heard what you said; and we're not going to do that." I was stunned because: first I didn't think they were hearing me; secondly, I hadn't heard what they were saying; and finally, I had to agree with the plan "we" had developed over my objections.

Marriage, like religious life and the priesthood, is the place where you don't get your own will very often; it's where the best you can hope for is compromise.

It's the place where you can hope your needs, desires and dreams are heard by your spouse, honored, and then adjusted to make room for both parties and all the children involved. 

If it's true of life in general that Man proposes and God disposes; it's especially true when we are "subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ."

Eventually I realize that what I thought I wanted wasn't all that important. What I want most of all is communion with those I love and those who love me. I can toss up an idea and watch it get shot down like a skeet at a trap-shoot, and disclaim ownership of it. It's all in good fun because, in the end, we want only what God wants.

Monday of the Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 479

Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.

Saint Paul describes Jesus as “a fragrant aroma.”
Sometimes you can enter a room and be there quite a while before you notice a certain aroma in the room. In fact you might have visited the room several times before you noticed it. The smell might be pleasant or unpleasant.
Whether you notice it or not, it has its effect. Smells are associated with the limbic system of the brain, sometimes called the “lizard brain.” It’s real basic stuff where feelings and fears and pleasures and ancient memories are stored.
I live at Mount Saint Francis; it was formerly a seminary, closed in 1975. Every room in the compound of buildings has been repurposed since 1975. But a few years ago I stepped into a hallway which has seen little change; I was struck by a scent that took me back fifty years. I have no idea what caused that odor, nor have I noticed it again since then. But there it was. Neither pleasant nor unpleasant, it was powerfully evocative of – what? I am not sure. A seminary experience among a herd of teenage boys, with adult friars, rules, studies, regimented prayer, a rigid schedule, plots and conspiracies, eagerness and fear, rampaging testosterone, a long time ago.
I suppose we’ve all had similar experiences; they enrich an already fascinating experience of life.
Religion has always employed smells to evoke prayer, especially the aromas of incense. Although the economies of the ancient mid-east were mostly local, producing their own food and immediate necessities, certain luxuries items like incense were traded internationally. Camels, asses and galley ships were laden with perfumes, fine cloth, jewelry and incense. (“Gold, frankincense, and myrrh!”) Because the aromatic smoke was precious it was offered sacrificially to God even as the worshippers enjoyed it.
Saint Paul urged his disciples “as beloved children” to be a fragrant aroma to God and to one another. Every person brings a different presence into the company of others; each is unique and no one is replaceable. We might not notice some people until we miss their presence; they were subtle but nonetheless real. The more pleasant persons are like a fragrant aroma.
Some people come on like gangbusters. I suspect Saint Paul did not. He responded to one complaint that his letters were stronger than his presence, and he threatened that on his return he would certainly correct that misimpression!
He seemed to prefer that person who is like a fragrant aroma, whose presence is powerful but subtle, who allows people to be themselves and yet find comfort, direction, reassurance and instruction in their presence. His kind of people are not an overpowering stench but a subtle reassurance. They say you are welcome here; you are safe; you are honored and respected. You may speak your peace here.
Immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be mentioned among you, as is fitting among holy ones, no obscenity or silly or suggestive talk, which is out of place, but instead, thanksgiving….
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 150

The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.

“Black lives matter!” This cry has been heard in our country the last several months; and it has met considerable resistance.
Perhaps the first response was meant to be helpful – “All lives matter.” – but it missed the point. Certain people were saying Black Lives Matter and they would not be refused a particular hearing. 

Another response pushed back, saying that racial discrimination no longer exists in America. That was easy for some people to say since they weren’t the complainants. I’m old enough to remember a similar response of the 1950’s and 1960’s when Negros were told to "Wait awhile!" and “Know your place.”
Neither response reflects today’s scripture readings; they assure us that God hears the cry of the lowly regardless of what others might say about them; regardless even of the justice of their complaint. God will hear the plea and “judge justly and affirm the right, and the Lord will not delay.”

I suspect the fearful response to “Black Lives Matter” supposes that God might indeed hear the complaint and set things right, regardless of the disruption, upheaval or revolution that action might entail. It’s better, they suppose, to let sleeping dogs lie.

The Lord's justice will certainly come as a surprise, to both the poor and the wicked. The poor will be astonished that, after all this time, they will be shown mercy. The wicked will not even remember their crimes. 

I have personally seen this in the case of sexual abusers. They frankly cannot remember what they said or did; it wasn't that important to them! The victim was stunned, shamed, overwhelmed, humiliated, even traumatized; and the perpetrator never gave it a second thought! We're seeing this drama played out in public right now; it is painful, humiliating and deeply disturbing for everyone. 
The publican in today’s gospel models the response that Jesus would teach us. This poor man does not judge his own case nor that of the Pharisee in the front of the temple. He is profoundly aware of his own sin and has nothing to lose by admitting it before God. He is willing to hear the voice of his accusers; perhaps he has heard them already and that's why he is in the temple. 

We cannot live in community without rubbing, bumping and occasionally bruising one another. To imagine oneself as always innocent is to play the pharisee. 

Each Sunday we ask the Lord to show us our sins, especially our sins against one another. God proves his mercy by showing us our sins. 

Saturday of the Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 478

Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole Body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the Body’s growth and builds itself up in love.

In this passage from his Epistle to the Ephesians, Saint Paul pushes his analogy of the Body of Christ into metaphor. He sees in the Church's structures of authority the tendons and ligaments of a human body. Christ's "body" is not an amorphous blob of flesh but a complex organism which can grow and build itself up in love because it has a variety of charismatic offices  -  prophets,  evangelists, pastors, teachers and so forth. 

Modern philosophers especially of the Baby Boom and later generations search for their identity. "Who am I?" we ask. "Am I who others say I am, or someone else?" 

The modern answer has been existential, "I am whatever I choose to make of myself!" This option has been encouraged by the American myth, "You can be anything you want to be!" We routinely expose our children to the stories of Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Barack Obama and countless senators and congresspersons who betook themselves from poverty to power. 

My favorite songs in that self-made mythology are Frank Sinatra's "I gotta be me!" and "I did it my way." 

Theologian John Zizioulas, the Eastern Orthodox metropolitan of Pergamon, addresses this existential question with the resources of an ancient Christian tradition. He points to the mystery of the Holy Trinity as key to identifying oneself. We know the one God only as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There can be no Son without the Father, nor Father without the Son. The Holy Spirit is their love for one another and also a "person" with the equal rank and dignity of the Father and the Son. 

With that theological foundation, Father Zizioulas describes the Church as a hierarchical structure of persons who have been ordained first as baptized Christians within the communion of the Church. Among the baptized are bishops, presbyters and deacons. He recalls Saint Ignatius of Antioch teaching that the bishop images the Father to the Church, not lording it over them but caring for and serving each one. 

There are other ministries too, though not quite as permanent as that of the ordained: catechists, Eucharistic Ministers, choir, and so forth. 

In other words, I begin to answer the question of who I am by the "character" that was sacramentally given to me. I claim my identity as I take my place in the congregation, as I surrender to full and active participation in the communion. 

The Church also recognizes and honors the roles of husband and wife. They are assigned by one's sexual identity. Men may be husbands; and women, wives. Thus we recognize our own incarnate nature; these roles are dynamic and equal in dignity but not interchangeable. 

In Descartes' secular society, founded on his famous thought experiment, the cogito ("I think therefore I am.") one may become whatever one thinks one is. If my identity is rooted in my opinions or preferences it may flip around in any direction, now clinging to this idea, and then to that image. 

I read of one hapless young woman, feeling persecuted by her peers, complained, "I can't help it if I am goth!" Adrift in an infinity of choices and driven by the currents of fashion she was drowning in bathos

John Macmurray also explores the role of identity, showing how a person emerges from the infantile, animal level of existence in relationship to other persons. This can be a blessed journey as generous parents encourage and enable the child to grow to maturity, taking her place as a responsible adult. It can also be perilous if parents are missing or self-absorbed and the child must struggle to survive in her own house. In the latter case she may never attain personhood. 

That is why religion is so important. If the child learns to give and receive in an environment of mutual sharing and common sacrifice -- even in poverty where resources are scarce -- she may become the adult who is prepared to usher another generation into personhood. 

Saint Paul's vision of Church as the Body of Christ still challenges and invites us to find our identity in Christ and his Church. Within this communion we take our place before God's Throne and sing God's praises. 

Friday of the Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 477

You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

One of the privileges of hospital ministry is hearing less about the “social gospel.” When the patients are well enough to argue politics or religion we send them home.
But we do have to argue politics and religion sometimes. Life is not all about weather and sports; there is also news, which we might call the signs of the times. Ever since the Lord promised Moses he would liberate the Hebrews from their slavery in Egypt our religion has been political. We honor Saint Joseph because he watched the political situation closely, intuited what might happen, and acted accordingly:
…when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there. And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee.
We might prefer a religion without politics. In the United States there are endless choices and consumers can buy any kind of religion they like. But our Catholic faith, with its roots in the body, history, geography and Jewish traditions, cannot dissociate itself from reality – and politics is very real.

In today’s gospel Jesus chides the crowds for watching the weather but ignoring “the present time.” What was happening at that present time that they were missing?
First there is the division we heard about yesterday:

From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

A fire has been set upon the earth in the person of Jesus. If you only want peace you don’t want Jesus. Families are often troubled by the peacemaker who first suppresses all quarrelling and arguing, and then disagreement and discussion. The Spirit of Jesus is going to stir up trouble as children and adults ponder the times and their response. Children must have a different reaction to the times, often to the disappointment of their parents who had hoped their offspring would mirror their own opinions, attitudes and beliefs.
I remember my own disagreements with my Dad back in the tumultuous 1960’s, but I also recall his encouragement when we quarreled: “Stick to your guns!”

An opinion which has not been challenged in discussion and argumentation does not merit the word opinion. Just as the steel of a good sword must be folded and hammered and heated and folded again, hundreds of times over, a useful opinion has been challenged in conflict.
We work out our salvation in the real world, not in the Lala-Land of our fears, preferences and dreams. The Bible does not describe a make-believe world like Tolkien's Middle-Earth; it was not found under a rock in New York State or recited to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel. It was created, collected, edited and translated by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit through a long, difficult, complex political process. 

Is the life of faith complicated? You bet! Can we live with that? "With God all things are possible."