Tuesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?

In 1861, when the United States split into warring factions Catholic bishops also split into quarreling camps. They were held together by allegiance to Rome and their ancient faith but each prelate supported the soldiers and sailors culled from their churches, and the causes for which they fought, killed and died. 
When Europe erupted in World War I, Christians of every nation fought savagely against their fellow Christians. By 1939, when war again erupted a newer generation had stop pretending to believe in Christ or any of his churches.  
 In 2018, when the United States is again divided into quarreling factions, each calling the other unpatriotic, the Catholic Church is again split into mutually suspicious camps. 
Is anyone actually surprised by that? We might shake our heads in wonder at the earlier incidents. Why couldn't the bishops make a definitive statement on slavery in 1861, a statement that every self-avowed Catholic would accept? Why couldn't Pope Benedict XV, in union with Protestant ministers and Eastern Orthodox patriarchs, demand that every Christian lay down his arms? Wasn't it obvious that this war was unnecessary? 
But we're not surprised when today's Christians feud with each other. Every thinking person is convinced of his own upbringing, inspiration and opinions. The marvelous Internet provides a resounding echo chamber to assure him of his righteousness, and the wicked, irresponsible, insane foolishness of his opponents. "How can those people," he wonders, "so lack ordinary compassion?" 
I hear a note of irony, if not humor, in Jesus' remarks about the sun which shines on the bad and the good, and the rain which falls on the just and the unjust. There may be a hidden meaning under his words; a silent question, "Are you sure of which camp you're in?" 
The Greeks used the word hubris when they described the fall of the great and powerful. Hubris is a pride that goes before the fall. But hubris belongs not only to the powerful; it hides among those who appoint and anoint the powerful, those who think they have appointed a superior worthy of their trust although he represents nothing but their own self-interest. 
Hubris is the arrogance that cannot see its own blindness, that supposes it knows everything that needs to be known and can judge others with both conviction and Truth. 
Jesus doesn't so much show us the truth as lead us to himself, the Truth incarnate. He is possessed by no one; no one can lay a hand on him until he surrenders; no one can kill him before he lays down his life.
Our only hope of knowing the truth about any controversial matter is in our knowing the One whose sun shines on every camp, whose rain falls on every head. Apart from each other we cannot know the Truth, feuding with one another we only retreat further from the Truth. 
We will, however, agree on that Great Day when we are stunned into terrified silence by the Battle Cry of Psalm 46:10, 
Who stops wars to the ends of the earth,
breaks the bow, splinters the spear,
and burns the shields with fire
“Be still and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
exalted on the earth.”

Happy Juneteenth!

Monday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one to him as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand him your cloak as well.
Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go with him for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow."

Whenever we read the Sermon on the Mount we should ponder our current situation. If we cannot hear the roar of current events in the quiet sanctuary of our church, we will find it lapping at our knees like an overflowing river as we wade back to our cars. In 2018 the brilliant revelation of the Gospel commingles with the revelations of the MeToo movement.
Feminist critics rightly complain that this passage sounds like a man's advice to men. Turn the other cheek; hand him your cloak, go the extra mile, give to anyone who asks: these verses are advice to the powerful who don't have to answer to the more powerful for what they have done.
At the end of every retreat, as the Director of Retreats, I asked every group for a generous donation. I hoped they might "give to the one who asks." Though I asked the same "average" amount of both groups, the men always gave more than the women. I eventually realized husbands don't have to answer to their wives in exactly the same way as wives to their husbands. Men feel more freedom to give as much as they want, while women often have to answer to someone else. Perhaps it shouldn't be that way, but that's the way it is.
With his "turn the other cheek," I don't believe Jesus is teaching women or men to be passive in the face of aggression. The  Holy Spirit is not a passive spirit even when it counsels silence, listening, watching and waiting. Those are active responses of the attentive Christian.
Always, the first response of the Christian complies with the Holy Spirit. We have received that Guiding Spirit from Jesus and we pray daily for a keener, more sensitive responsiveness to that Spirit. We should soar in the Spirit like the eagle whose outstretched, feathery "fingers" feel the most delicate motions of air.
The Sermon on the Mount is not simply a handbook of what to do and not do. Rather, it helps us recognize the subtle movements of the Holy Spirit. When someone wants to go to law with you over your coat, perhaps the Spirit will say, "Hand him your coat as well!" If someone presses you into service for one mile, the Spirit might whisper, "Go the extra mile."
Without those verses in the Bible, the idea -- as you hear the Spirit's whisper -- might seem too ridiculous, too unconventional. "No one does that!" you might think. But you have heard them announced in Church during the Mass; and, as odd as they seemed at the time, in this moment, under these circumstances, Jesus' teaching suddenly make sense! In fact they appeal to you and bring a mischievous grin to your face. "I can do this!" you say.
I am quite sure the Holy Spirit has prompted thousands of women to speak up; to organize, protest and demand changes in the way we do business, entertainment, sports, religion and politics. Sexual harassment, exploitation and rape are SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) in too many organizations. MeToo means "I have been slapped in the face!" By publicly acknowledging that humiliation a woman "turns the other cheek." Someone indeed might slap her a second time but it will be a public event, perhaps in a court of law where the world can see who is wicked and who is innocent.
Will this movement by exploited by wicked persons? Of course it will. Just as they exploit the names God, Jesus and Christian, the Bible and the Church. And some men will claim to be victims of MeToo. There's no more exploitable word than victim
That doesn't mean MeToo is not inspired by the Lord. Just when you thought the world was too corrupt for God's mercy to appear anywhere, it surges like a torrent and purifies the land.

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.

Liturgist, theologians and seminarians, during the exciting years after the Second Vatican Council, expected a rebirth of wonder among all Christians. With the restoration of the Mass and Sacraments to their original languages, with deeper insights into the scriptures, with an energized laity who showed new interest in evangelization, with the ecumenical willingness to meet, pray and work with Protestants, the future looked bright.
But that enthusiasm was accompanied by an ominous pessimism. If the "cultural Catholicism" of many ethnic communities was disappearing in the post-Kennedy, post-Council "New Age," the Catholic Church might be reduced to a "remnant." Perhaps the future of the church depended largely on those who actually practiced their religious obligations of prayer, fasting and charity. The Lord might separate the wheat from the chaff without the drama of a judgement day as the supernova of the church collapsed into a dwarf star.
The Hebrew prophets often promised (or threatened) such a "deliverance" to the Israelites. Though the vast majority of God's people might disappear without a trace, their syncretic religious practices forgotten, God would preserve a remnant. Their survival would demonstrate God's fidelity to the everlasting covenant and preserve the hope that all nations might yet come to the Lord."Remnant, a piece of fabric, is one of the images the prophets used to describe these optimistic threats. In today's first reading, we hear Isaiah use a similar image, the topmost branch of a tree. This "tender shoot" might be lopped off, transplanted and nurtured into a majestic cedar. God can do such a thing with his people! Centuries later, John the Baptist declared the Lord could raise up a holy people from "these very stones." Take nothing for granted, he warned.
Today's readings from Isaiah, Second Corinthians and the Gospel of Mark invoke the Spirit of Courage. The times might be very difficult but we have courage. Or, as the Washington Senators sang, You gotta have heart.
Courage is freely given by our good God. He scatters it about like seed broadcast on the soil. It grows of itself through nights and days and we know not how. If the seed of hope appears to be very small, and the bush of possibility is unimpressive, the inspired heart nonetheless bears and wears God's promise.
"I heard the owl call my name" tells the story of young priest sent to a Native Canadian tribe far from the centers of civilization. Arriving there by airplane and canoe, he tells them, "I can see this village is dying; your children are moving to the cities. I have come to help you make the transition to a brighter future."
After the Mass the congregation quietly files out, thanking their new pastor for his kind words. But the old chief stops to say to him, "I don't know why you say the village is dying. I feel fine!"
I have invoked that story many times.
Mass attendance is down today; many parishes are being merged; families are disintegrating in a culture of divorce, drug abuse and violence. Cultural Catholicism has largely disappeared; but a remnant keeps the faith. They feel fine. Birds of the air dwell in our branches, sheltered and safe from searching predators.
This is how it is with the Kingdom of God.

Saturday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 364

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow. But I say to you, do not swear at all...

When you tell the truth, it becomes part of your past; when you tell a lie, it becomes part of your future. 

I meet twice a week with Veterans in addiction rehab and present various "spiritual" topics. It's really a philosophical discussion since I have no idea what the word spiritual means. Our philosophical discussion has deep roots in western culture; without the religious trappings we're able to discuss freely how one chooses to live. 
Occasionally, I offer "For the Love of Truth." As you know, "Truth" is one of God's names. I open the discussion with, "The liar doesn't tell the truth because he doesn't know the truth. He never met her!" The liar, especially the addict, has built a life on a false foundation, "I need my stuff! Those who agree with that and help me get my stuff are friends; those who disagree and prevent me from getting my stuff are my enemies." 
We explore that idea. Not everyone agrees. It's a peculiar approach. But we all know people who can never be trusted. Whatever they say is offered with an extra ingredient of self-interest; there's an agenda behind every word. The worse liars move from place to place and job to job; they can't stay long anywhere because they're found out so easily. 
Then I offer another truism: the word fact is derived from the Latin word, facere, meaning to make. As in factory, manufacture, facsimile, and facile. Facts are things we make. Cardinal Ratzinger credits Giambattista Vico with the modern belief that truth can be manufactured as scientists discover and accumulate facts. These facts can be configured into working hypotheses and theories, which become operating principles for the mechanics of our daily life. 
Vico dismissed the beliefs that God is the origin of truth, and the Church has access to the mind of God. Scientists, he believed, could build a better truth.
And so we use facts to avoid telling the truth. For instance, (I remind my class of recovering addicts), "I am just going down to the store to buy a pack of cigarettes." It's true; it's a fact. 
But it's hiding the truth. He's going out to get a bottle of alcohol, or worse. (One fellow said he didn't come back for three years.) 
We use facts to hide the truth, to deny it, and even to hurt others. I assure the Veterans, there is no such thing as brutally honest. The truth may be hard to bear but it is never brutal. We must speak the truth in love, or remain silent. 
Truth is a safe place where we can live together. I love this picture of a dog and cat. When people speak the truth to one another, they create more than a place; they create a substantial relationship. I use the word intentionally, from my Roman Catholic tradition, which Catholics recognize from our Sunday recitation: "consubstantial with the Father..."  
A substantial relationship is more important than any of its parties; it deserves the loyalty and sacrifice of every member. A husband and wife form a substantial relationship which is more important than their relationships with their parents, children, friends, jobs or churches. We know this from the substantial covenant the Lord gave to Israel and Jesus gives to his Church. "You shall be my people, and I will be your God.
It begins by telling the truth. Often a hard truth like, "My name is ___ and I am an addict." It is indeed a narrow path that leads to life

Friday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 363

You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Jesus' teaching about lust in the heart echoes the ancient teaching, familiar to every child who has attended Christian or Jewish education, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife."
The last two of the Ten Commandments are remarkable for their authority about what goes on in the invisible places in our hearts. Where the other eight commandments address public, visible behavior, "thou shalt not covet" addresses one's inner life and thoughts. That too is subject to God's scrutiny and judgement. That's because it does matter. What is whispered in the secrecy of my heart is inevitably shouted from the rooftop.

But we should approach this topic carefully. I don't believe "God is out to getcha if you don't watch out." No one can know what I am thinking, though many can speculate. For that matter, I might not notice what I am thinking! Ideas flit about in my head, seeming to enter by one ear and out the other. Some I take hold of, others I ignore, most vanish without a trace.
I learned years ago to pay little attention to the irrelevant in my head. Practicing meditation, I noticed that I put flags on certain thoughts. I had rules about what ideas were permitted in my head: I should not remember old quarrels; I should not replay movies or TV shows; I should not prepare my next sermon; and, most especially I should never-ever have a sexual image in my head! Relaxing in meditation, paying attention only to a single word of prayer, I learned to ignore everything else. Was I lusting in my heart while I meditated? I don't know; I didn't notice.
I have watched smokers rush for the door after a lecture. They put one foot across the sill and stopped to light up, even as traffic backed up behind them. I asked a fellow about that, "Were you thinking about your next smoke during that entire lecture?"
He denied it; it only came upon him as the session was ending. But the desire was there, hidden behind and eating away at his attention the whole while. What a cross that must be!
Lust is an equally heavy cross; but, apparently, it preoccupies an awful lot of people. Perhaps they meditate on it too much, arousing themselves with unnecessary anxieties, fears and desires. The entertainment culture tells us continually how important it is. They must suppose that sexual unease is normal; it's never okay to be okay.
We hear about the tragedy of harassment, sexual abuse, exploitation and rape daily. The culture tells us these behaviors are both normal and Unacceptable. The MeToo movement describes the continual anxiety of everyday life for many women: "A man worries that women might laugh at him; a woman worries a man might rape her."
Young people seem to be continually confused by mixed signals. When she smiled, he thought it was an invitation. But it was only a girl's habitual reaction to a bewildering situation. When she said yes he thought it meant yes, until it didn't.
Sexual anxiety causes many to struggle over their sexual identity. "What am I?" the young person asks, "Gay, straight, trans, metro, male, female...?"
I am quite sure my grandparents never worried about that. They got married; they had children; they died of old age and wondered why young people ask such odd questions.
Meanwhile, devout Christians sit in meditation, letting idle thoughts drift away, letting the Father of Jesus govern our minds. 
“Come to me, (Jesus says) all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
Sex is just not that important.

Thursday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time

And the seventh time the youth reported,
"There is a cloud as small as a man's hand rising from the sea."
Elijah said, "Go and say to Ahab,
'Harness up and leave the mountain before the rain stops you.'"
In a trice the sky grew dark with clouds and wind,
and a heavy rain fell.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, with the readings from the First Book of Kings, we have heard of a drought which afflicted Israel, and the mortal conflict it occasioned among the religious factions. In Elijah's time, the Hebrew God was widely regarded as the god of war, useful for invading lands and defending territory. Baal, the god the Hebrews found as they entered Canaan, managed fertility. He brought rain and caused the crops to flourish. The Hebrew God, however, is "a jealous God who will have no other gods before me."
The contest began with chapter 17 when Elijah told King Ahab,“As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, during these years there shall be no dew or rain except at my word.” Elijah's God would demonstrate his authority over the weather with a prolonged drought. The prophet then escaped into hiding, staying with a poor widow and her son and providing for them.
Yesterday we heard of the final great contest with God and Elijah on one side, the Baal and his five hundred priests on the other. After the five hundred spent the entire day beseeching their gods to show their might, and nothing happened, Elijah stepped forward, invoked the Lord, and a furious fire descended upon the sacrificial pyre. The ensuing slaughter of five hundred priests of Baal is not something Christians want to contemplate on a full stomach.
But an epilogue was yet to follow, the end of the drought. We hear that story in today's reading. Our God is the Lord of fire and rain, of war and peace.
The ghastly story of Elijah's triumph (and subsequent flight into the desert as he feared the wrath of Queen Jezebel) invites us to contemplate climate change and our dependence on God. "Science" has supplanted both the knowledge of God and reliance on God. At least many people think so, though they're rather fuzzy about what exactly "science" is. There are scientists doing research in every imaginable field -- and then some. Most of them are seriously dedicated to that method of discovery first described by Francis Bacon. But no serious Baconian scientist can pretend to prove the existence or non-existence of God. That question belongs to philosophers and theologians, who must first discuss the possibilities of "knowing" anything, and the meaning of "existence." Neither question worries those who appeal to God on Friday, Saturday or Sunday morning. 
Meanwhile the climate is changing and human activity is causing it. And much of that activity is driven by fear and greed, the same forces that drove Canaanite worship; and, today, drives the international stock market. The same forces that powered slave economies in Egypt and America, and communist society in the Soviet Union. 
Political philosophers of the 18th century thought they had developed an end-around greed and fear with a government comprised of three branches: executive, legislative and judiciary. But they also knew the system could not work unless the populace practiced some kind of religion that fostered virtue. If an educated, enlightened public was dedicated to family, church and local government -- the habits of the heart -- evil might be managed and the system could work. It was worth a try!  
Elijah threatened his people with fire and brimstone if they did not turn away from the slave religions of the past and to the God who freed them from Egypt. The threat remains in the form of ecological catastrophe which will be accompanied by economic disruption, infrastructural disintegration and political chaos. 
Seeing the very real danger, the people fell prostrate and said, “The Lord is God! The Lord is God!

Memorial of Saint Anthony of Padua, Priest and Doctor of the Church

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven."

Bishop Saint Hilary of Poitiers is remembered as a champion of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and ferocious opponent of the Arians. Somewhere in my reading  -- and I've been unable to find the reference now -- he says that God cannot simply overlook sins. Justice of its very nature demands reparation when evil has been committed. To ignore an evil deed, to forget it or pretend it never happen is to let it stand for all eternity un-atoned as a defiant challenge against the mercy and justice of God.
When we read of, hear of, or personally encounter savage atrocities we shudder not only at the deed but at the consequences that must follow. A suicide leaves children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation wondering, "Why did he do this to us?" American soldiers who have witnessed or perpetrated crimes against innocents in war zones may suffer "moral injury" for the rest of their lives; they're often unable or unwilling to share these stories with their families.
Even casual disagreements, the kind that happen everyday in ordinary households, may fester for years along with innumerable other complaints until they explode in desertion, abandonment and divorce.
We know this; we often hope it's not true. Perhaps my parent, now deceased, has forgiven me. Perhaps that cruel remark was immediately forgotten; or not even heard. Perhaps that unfortunate incident has disappeared in the rushing torrent of events, it's consequences eroded and mitigated by other events.
Saint Hilary disagreed. Justice cannot simply overlook evil. The God who is present to every moment at every moment forgets nothing. Hilary might have pointed to today's gospel from Saint Matthew, "...whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven." That's not a very severe penalty for scofflaws, but neither is it an ideal outcome.
I see two complementary and necessary ways to resolve this, First is our practice of penance. With the publican in the temple, we pray daily, "O Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner." I must be ready to hear the truth about me, especially when it's unpleasant. In that regard, my enemies may be more reliable than my friends; they shout what I wish were not even whispered.
The Catholic doctrine of Purgatory addresses this issue as we know there is always unfinished business at the end of life. In the VA I often pray for the recently deceased, "Lord Jesus, holy and compassionate, forgive N. his/her sins. by dying you opened the gates of life for those who believe in you. Do not let our brother/sister be parted from you...." 
Secondly, and more importantly, we believe in the redeeming blood of Jesus Christ. This is not a matter of God's nitpicking our peccadilloes as if he were eternally dissatisfied and implacable. By his passion and death Jesus atoned for every evil committed against God's justice, mercy, truth and beauty. Only the Son of God could do that! With that assurance we face the evil we have perpetrated and perpetuated; and then we allow ourselves to be purged. This pain becomes pleasure and this bitterness, delight as we see healing, restoration and reconciliation around us and within us.
God's plan for mercy and justice must be fulfilled in an integrated story when conflicts are resolved and misunderstandings, clarified. The barbaric killing of a man on Calvary will be revealed as beautiful and good. 
We are often reminded of God's infinite mercies but we shortchange God's mercy if we suppose he might overlook, dismiss or forget the many evil deeds of human history. They seem to us too many and perhaps too overwhelming. They are like the stars in the sky which, as Abraham saw, are beyond counting. But our God does not fit our reckoning; even unspeakable evil is not beyond the sacrificial blood of Jesus. God's mercy and justice are the same thing, a mystery beyond human understanding or imagination, and infinitely more beautiful.
As Julian of Norwich wrote:
Our Lord God shewed that a deed shall be done, and Himself shall do it, and I shall do nothing but sin, and my sin shall not hinder His Goodness working. ... It behooved that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.