Memorial of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, priest

A rock cliff in Montana
A student of the bible must also be a student of politics. Today’s “spirituality” which disavows politics chooses a fantasy land more like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, where the good guys always win. It bears little resemblance to ancient Palestine and the real world of our Bible. Our Roman Catholic lectionary also attempts to simplify the complexities of the Bible by cutting and pasting passages, and sometimes that helps us to understand what is happening. Unfortunately, in today’s passage it skews the story.

The reader misses in the seven missing verses the confrontation between a frightened, vacillating king and his more conscientious, devout subjects. They remind King Jehoiakim that Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom are neither untraditional nor unfamiliar. In fact they’ve heard the same sorry predictions from the prophets Micah and Uriah, and the good King Hezekiah let them live. (We could add the name of Isaiah.) But Jehoiakim was not mollified. He arrested and executed the fugitive Uriah. He would have done the same to Jeremiah but Ahikam protected him.

Someone has said, “Politics is life.” And, to embrace life in all its beauty, we must be willing to live in this political world where everyone has needs, fears, expectations, opinions; and many have power. The creation of the Bible itself was more like making sausage than most weekday morning Bible groups.

The young man Jeremiah, idealist, iconoclast, poet and misunderstood prophet, felt deeply the disappointment of politics. He believed with all his heart that he spoke only the word of God, and many people respected him for it. The office of prophet, like today’s ministry, was recognized and honored by many people. But they didn’t necessarily follow his advice.

The word of God confronted the city of Jerusalem as it confronts us today. It comes from many voices with varying opinions and degrees of authority. Some will claim infallible authority, only to find that claim carries little weight. The right choice is rarely so obvious, and we must always pray to God for an obedient spirit, clarity, courage and confidence.

And even when you make the right choice after careful discernment, and with the assurance of moral and spiritual authority, it may be a hundred years before anyone agrees with you.

Friday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time

In his book, Upon the Altar of the Nation, a moral history of the Civil War, Harry S. Stout describes the origins of the American Civil Religion. This “religion” was created during the American Civil War, as both sides made enormous and unexpected sacrifices. Steeped in the Christian religion, with little influence from Catholic, Jewish, Native American or Muslim religions, Americans compared the “blood bath” to a baptism. From the horror something good had to be born.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address expressed and gave voice to this new religion. The nation emerging from the Civil War will have demonstrated to the world its belief “that all men are created equal.” The reborn United States has a mission, not unlike the Christian mission, to the whole world. It will promote freedom, or liberty. Its creed will prophesy God’s blessing upon a democracy of equals, which necessarily leads to prosperity.
Its government must be “of the people, by the people, for the people,” because, as Thomas Jefferson believed, an enlightened nation of fully-franchised and educated, citizens will invariably make the right choices. Nor will that nation “perish from the earth.” Baptized in the blood of these honored dead, it will endure until the second coming of Christ.
150 years later Americans still believe in our "American Exceptionalism." We believe we must be a city on the hill for the world; and that our principles of freedom and equality, which have brought us unprecedented prosperity, are the envy of the world. 

I once attended a lecture at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I was the only Catholic in a room full of Lutheran ministers. The lecturer declared, “You can talk to any Catholic and you will discover that he knows what few Americans understand: the church is two thousand years old and the United States is only two hundred years old.”
I replied, “Guilty!”
Catholics may be loyal citizens but we never quite buy the American Civil Religion, which brings me to today’s scripture passage from Jeremiah:
Our hero is in trouble again. He has said what no one should say, that God will not save Jerusalem against the Babylonian siege. Because of their sins, God will let city and nation fall just as other nations have fallen. We enjoy neither exceptionalism nor special blessings, although we have the temple, the priesthood, the law, the covenant and the promises!
Of course the beleaguered citizens were enraged by his prophecy. Surrounded by the Babylonian army with no help from Egypt, their only hope was to maintain "hope against all odds," and Jeremiah spoke only of doom.
Unfortunately, he was right. The Babylonian army captured the city and installed its own puppet government. When that government rebelled a dozen years later, the city was attacked a second time, and leveled. The devastation was terrible.

Out of the wreckage of that sovereign nation, which would not reappear until 1948, the Jews kept their scriptures and traditions. In many ways their prophets sounded as strident then as some Christian preachers sound today. Their advice was taken no more seriously than it is today; although, like our priests and ministers, they were accorded religious respect. History proved them right about their pessimistic predictions; but every nation collapses sooner or later. 

More important than their fulminations, we learn from the prophets the intense, passionate, even jealous love God has for his people. They would let no one forget the covenant: 
I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their fathers' wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation; but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation, on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.  

The prophets proclaimed the infinite tenderness and the terrible jealousy of God. In that the prophets were never wrong.

Memorial of Saint Martha

Fr Ken and Rev. Bren Bishop
at the Rex Robley VA Hospital
Saint Martha is a ready friend to anyone who thinks she cannot be a saint. Martha comes off badly in the only two stories we have about her, and yet she was dear to Jesus and a true saint – despite what appears to be a crabby personality. Hey, not everyone can be Ms. Personality! There is plenty of room in heaven for you too, and me.

In today’s gospel story, Martha again challenges Jesus, “Had you been here my brother would never have died.” To understand this gospel we should first understand something about story telling. Every good story needs a villain, or at least a foil. The character of Martha has to lack imagination to make the unimaginable more astonishing when it actually happens.
This eleventh chapter of Saint John’s Gospel illustrates Jesus’ teaching in the fifth chapter: Amen, amen, I say to you, the hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
What can that mean? So let’s have a story:
First, we need someone who is dead to be raised. And what better person than Jesus’ friend and disciple, Lazarus? Remember Lazarus? He died in Saint Luke’s gospel too, in the parable about the rich man and the poor man. A true disciples, he’s got this death-to-self role down pat.
Now let’s bring in some mourners to accentuate the drama: the silently grieving Mary and the not so silent Martha. We’ll use her to challenge Jesus, “Where were you when we needed you?” She represents us in our more difficult moments.
She is also the pragmatic woman with both feet on the ground; she keeps her wits when others might do something foolish, like opening the grave of a man who has been four days dead. Phew! Bad idea!
And that’s because any reasonable person – or any unreasonable person, for that matter -- cannot imagine what Jesus will do. We need her to be surprised.
So Martha is Jesus’ foil, but she is no fool. She knows truth, goodness, mercy, and love when she sees Him. Like the merchant who sells everything to buy the field with buried treasure, Martha invests her all in Jesus.  
Let’s face it, in His presence we’re all foils. We make his goodness look spectacular; his innocence, splendid; his mercy, superabundant. If we sometimes look like fools we’re wise enough to be glad and grateful so close to Goodness.

Wednesday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time

The prophet Jeremiah may be the first self-identified individual in literary history. He experienced a calling to be not only a prophet, but a solitary prophet without the support of a prophetic guild. Ordinarily, if a prophet must stand up and rebuke his contemporaries, he wants someone to back him up. The people will look for “the testimony of two or more witnesses.” Why would anyone listen to one peculiar crackpot when no one agrees with him?
Jeremiah never found such support. He must speak the words that God gives to him alone. His loneliness is palpable, almost pathetic:
     Woe to me, mother, that you gave me birth!
      a man of strife and contention to all the land!
      I neither borrow nor lend,
      yet all curse me.

Three thousand years later, in a nation that cultivates individuality with all its boldness, energy and creativity we should remember how much it costs. The teenager who wants to stand against her family and her peers will know the agonizing, crushing loneliness of Jeremiah. He was probably a teen when he started prophesying.
The scientist or engineer who comes up with a brilliant new idea will meet opposition from the establishment. They will mock him and his notions as crazy or idiotic. New ideas often make progress only when the old generation has retired or died. The next generation, driven by an impulse to make a difference by being different, welcomes and utilizes new ideas – until they are challenged by the next generation.
Deep in the woods
Becoming oneself is a lonely task, and yet vital to the spiritual life. As each one negotiates the life we’re given, society hands the person a role, with its own list of expectations. “You are a husband, father, mother or wife and here is what we expect of you.” Or, “You’re a grandmother now; here is what grandmothers are supposed to do. Here is how they feel about their grandchildren; here is how they treat them; and here are the sacrifices they make for them.”
Refusing or even modifying the role can be painful. Perhaps grandmother decides she wants to travel, go back to school, start a new career, or take up some artistic expression. “Well, that’s very nice, so long as you don’t compromise your duty to your children and grandchildren.”
The individual who thinks she has finally attained the life and situation where she can make her own decisions and experience her own uniqueness may be astonished by loneliness. She may have to cultivate a whole new set of relationships, a new “support system,” if she wants to continue.
The Christian, stepping out of the expectations of family, career and (very likely) church, who is willing to pay the price, will discover new depths of reality. Her life will be painted with darker and brighter tones. Her feelings will be more intense; her experience, more palpable; and her faith, more dynamic.
Jeremiah may have been the pioneer in the territory of individuality, but it’s still an uncharted wilderness of perilous adventures and stark beauty.

Tuesday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time

In the long history of humankind, thousands of cities have appeared and disappeared. Their cultures, customs, rulers, religions, symbols and gods vanished with them, lost forever. Periodically archaeologists dig them up and speculate about how the citizens used to live. How did they experience life? What values did they teach their children? How did they survive so long? What finally overcame them?
Sometimes we know they were conquered by another city; sometimes we have no clue. In some cases the climate changed, as when the towns in Greenland disappeared after five hundred years of habitation. The people of Cahokia Illinois apparently ran out of firewood. Disease, famine, earthquakes, fires, floods, glaciers and, of course, war have erased ways of life their people thought sacred and immutable. North America, with its severe climate, has seen more upheaval than most continents.
So what happened to Jerusalem in the sixth century before Christ? The Babylonians captured and destroyed the city. They deported everyone who might be useful; murdered, raped and maimed many; took all the livestock and food supplies, and left only the poorest in the ravaged land. As Jesus would say many years later, "The meek inherit the earth." 

The prophets had long predicted Jerusalem's fall if the city were not faithful to God. Jeremiah acknowledges:
We recognize, O Lord, our wickedness,
the guilt of our fathers;
that we have sinned against you.
But naysayers are always predicting doom. It doesn’t take divine inspiration to do that. Nor does it take much inspiration to say, “I told you so!” And Jeremiah doesn’t say it with much conviction. 
Someone is bound to ask, “Were we that bad? Did the city, despite the piety and devotion of so many poor, helpless people who were also destroyed in the carnage of war, really deserve this severe punishment?”
The question is not unfamiliar to the Bible, Jews or Christians. Even as we teach our children that God will reward goodness and punish wickedness, we hear the objections of the righteous Job and the irascible Qoheleth.
Or, in the words of Sportin Life, from the Gershwin Brothers’ Porgy and Bess:
     It ain't necessarily so
     It ain't necessarily so
     The t'ings dat yo' li'ble
     To read in
de Bible,
     It ain't necessarily so.

Jesus seems to have it both ways in the Gospel according to Saint Luke:
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Or those eighteen who were killed when the
tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ (13:1-5)

So we should pursue goodness, justice and mercy! The Lord has promised reward for the just and retribution for the wicked. But we cannot expect a cause-effect relationship here.  Hard times fall on the good and the bad alike. Between the two there is always the mystery of God’s justice, mercy and forbearance. We just don’t know when or how God will move.
This is maddening to the scientific mind that wants explanations and answers now. But it is comfort to sinners like you and me, who pray with gratitude for the time we have to turn away from sin and live by the gospel.

Memorial of Saint Joachim and Saint Anne, parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary

For, as close as the loincloth clings to a man's loins,
so had I made the whole house of Israel
and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord;
to be my people, my renown, my praise, my beauty.

Few in the church today might think of our Holy Mother Church as God’s underwear. But we can allow Jeremiah the distance of a different climate, geography, culture and twenty-six centuries; and try to understand what he is saying.
First we hear that God’s people – think Church – is so dear and beloved and close to God, that we cling to God to intensely, we are like intimate apparel.
We enjoy an extraordinary relationship with God. Chastened by our own history and intimidated by the ideology of multiculturalism, Christians might hesitate to ponder that mystery. I might ask myself “Why should I be so special?” as I hear others demand, “Who do you think you are? God’s gift to mankind?”
But it is impossible to discover one’s true identity, one’s own “name,” without acknowledging “The Lord has called me by name.” We have the prophet Jeremiah to thank for that awareness. He experienced his individuality as blessing and as curse, as a singular privilege and a terrible burden.
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you. (Jeremiah 1: 5)
Likewise, a church – parochial, diocesan or universal – cannot describe its mission without claiming a blessing that belongs uniquely to itself. Failing that, it fails altogether.

Secondly, the loincloth Jeremiah describes was apparently not covered by outerwear, as we cover our underwear; so a person might sport a pretty fashionable loincloth and draw the admiring attention of the crowd. Today, if anyone flaunts his or her pretty underwear, he or she had better be three years old or younger.
Once again acknowledging the distance of time and culture, we hear that God wants his loincloth --his Church -- to be so beautiful that we are his renown, praise and beauty.
How do we do that? It’s not so difficult. We begin by considering the beauty and goodness and wonder and joy and loveliness of God. As Saint Francis said, “You are good, all good, supreme good.” Secondly, we consider our own sins. When I “do my own inventory,” as they say in 12-step meetings, I can only consider how richly God has blessed me and how often I have proven myself unworthy of such love. I am hardly worthy to be a member of this church; and if I belong to this church it is not for their salvation but for mine.
If anyone happens to see the renown, praise, and beauty of God in me or my church, I know it is nothing I contrived. 

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The readings this Sunday invite us to consider the power of prayer. I hesitate to use the word power, because it is such an important word in the American lexicon. Power is used to sell machinery, everything from computers to cars.
When I think of prayer I think of our covenant with God, and who teaches us better than Abraham, the father of the covenant, and Jesus, the Covenant Incarnate?
Covenant implies relationship and a nation of lonely people should contemplate the power of lasting, dependable, honest relationships.
The word covenant comes to us from the ancient near-east, from Mesopotamia to Egypt and Greece. Emperors and kings made covenants with one another, often with an exchange of family members. “My daughter will marry your son and we will be forever bound to one another in their covenant of love.” That system prevailed well into modern times.
If the “love” of those married couples was often compromised by concubines and mistresses, the pact their rulers had made still meant something.  
The covenant was intended to last forever, like the marriage. And the language of their agreements, from what I understand, often used words like love, gratitude, and fidelity. Divorce was out of the question since the marriage bound families, peoples and nations together. The relationship was stronger if the immigrant spouse used his or her influence in the court. A young wife, for instance, might be the mother of the future king. She was always a force to be reckoned with.
In any case, conversation was the key. Like Abraham in this story from Genesis, the parties kept talking until they had an agreement. If one or the other party didn’t like the agreement, he was still there in the court, influencing how it was carried out.
In this story from Genesis, Abraham has a hidden agenda. I don’t think he is especially concerned about ten or twenty “just men” in either Sodom or Gomorrah. His wayward nephew Lot is there! So, although the cities are destroyed, Lot and his family escape. Good work, Abraham!
In our “dealings” with God, we have to keep talking, like the persistent neighbor in Jesus’ parable. “If he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.”
When we pray, we repeatedly say, “I will not quit this friendship with you, my God. I love you with all my heart. I trust you; I believe in you. And I know you want nothing but good for me and mine. Thy will be done! But – if you’ll take a bit of advice from one with severely limited vision – here’s what I think you should do....”
And God listens to our prayer. We have, as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches, an advocate before the throne of God, and he is our own brother, son, friend, and savior, Jesus.
It is good too, to remember the prayer of Mary. Along with all Israel, she prayed for a messiah, and God could not deny what Mary wanted. Her will is completely attuned to the will of God. Whatever God wants, she wants; whatever she wants, God wants! We watch Mary remaining “in relationship” with God even on Calvary. She would not abandon her Son or her God. if her human mind could not comprehend what was happening, she still believed.
Like you and me, Mary has cast her lot with God. With her ancient ancestor, Joshua, she would pray, “As for me and my house, we will worship the Lord.” 
God cannot resist such beautiful, patient, joyous and persuasive persistence.
In dealing with God, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. 

Saturday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Put not your trust in the deceitful words:
"This is the temple of the Lord!
The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!"

When I was a boy in the 1950’s, Sister warned us against presumption. “Don’t presume that God forgives you or loves you and will let you go to heaven!” She urged us to continually greater effort in prayer and good works.
Despite her best efforts the sin remains with us today, under the heading of “entitlement.” If anything it’s worse today as we have become a society not of workers but consumers. After fifty years of being told, “You have a right; you deserve it; you have earned it.” it's hard to remember that, in fact, I’ve earned nothing and deserve less. What rights I have are gifts of God.
I must remember daily, everything is gift. A gift is neither entitlement nor right. I met a Veteran recently who worried that he did not deserve the care he was receiving. Of course he had little choice as he could afford nothing else, and needs extensive medical care. I assured him that a grateful nation wants to give him this care, and his response should not be anxiety but gratitude. “Just keep saying thank you to every doctor, nurse, technician and housekeeper.” I told him.
Saint Francis claimed no privilege for himself except the Privilege of Poverty. He wanted to be like Christ in every way. The Lord who was born in poverty, raised in exile, lived on the streets, died on a cross and buried in a borrowed grave invited his servant Francis to share his poverty. Consequently Francis was often hungry and cold as he passed days and nights in the out-of-doors with no more protection from the elements than the shade of trees and the cover of clouds. Whether he baked in the hot sun or shivered through the cold nights, whether he itched with bugs or filth, he thanked God, “You are good, all good, supreme good!” He knew God’s goodness as few others have not despite of but because of his contempt for every creature comfort.
When Jerusalemites cried, “The temple of the Lord!” they thought that God must certainly protect that pile of stone. He seemed to have no choice! So long as they hovered close to the temple, their God must protect them. They had already forgotten how the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant, wresting it from the Hebrews. In his own time, with no help from the Hebrews, God allowed it to wander back to the Hebrew camp under the impulse of oxen. Everything is gift!
As Christians, we are entitled to nothing except the fate of Jesus – his poverty, abandonment and misery -- for which we are grateful. To be with him – even at Calvary, outside the gates of the city where there is no temple –would be true delight.

Friday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Yesterday we heard a parable about the frustration and disappointment every disciple of Christ meets, and about the promised great reward. Despite all appearances, God’s victory is assured.

In today’s gospel, the parable is “broken open” and becomes a metaphor. Saint Matthew’s gospel reflects the experience of the early church, its triumphs and its heartaches. Their questions are ours: "Why do some people hear the gospel and decline the invitation? Why do others pursue it with all their hearts? And which am I?"
Some years ago I visited a priest friend on his death bed. We fell to discussing an acquaintance, a young priest who suffered alcoholism and, despite repeated treatment, seemed unable to recover. My friend, whose face was eaten with cancer, said, “You know? I am the luckiest man alive!”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Here’s our young friend. He’s young, talented, smart, good-looking and ordained; but he cannot get the (twelve-step) program.
“The Lord showed me the way and I followed it. I don’t know why. I am the luckiest man alive.”

Today's gospel explains why some people fail the course. Some have heard the good news but were immediately dissuaded from believing by contradictory voices around them. They could not or would not believe Goodness appears in our world. Others were excited by the gospel. They were "into it." They bought all the paraphernalia of bibles and rosaries and wwjd bracelets. They thought, "This is where it's at!" But when real life caught up with their fad, they burned out quickly.
A third group prospered for quite some time, but they could not stop worrying and fretting about unimportant things -- What am I to wear? What am I to eat? Where will I live? Failing to maintain an intense focus on prayer and penance, to pursue good and avoid every form of evil, they bore no fruit. They just didn't make a difference. 
Finally, there are some who stay the course and bear great fruit, a hundred-, sixty- or thirty-fold. 
This is a challenging gospel because it doesn't provide a sure-fire evaluation to measure our fidelity. This is the gospel you heard of, that comforts the afflicted with the promise of abundance, and afflicts the comfortable with the threat of sterility. 

You might be interested to know I take almost all the photos for this blog with an ordinary Kodak Easyshare camera.

Memorial of Saint Mary Magdalene

We know little of Saint Mary of Magdala from the gospels but that has never stopped imaginative individuals from creating a marvelous tradition of stories about her. One of the latest was Dan Brown’s novel, in which he wove two ancient legends together: that of Mary Magdalene, the supposed wife of Jesus; and the Holy Grail, the original chalice from the Last Supper. Mr. Brown said she is the Holy Grail! Despite its silliness, that’s pretty cool!
But we can hardly blame romantic authors for their fantasies; there are plenty of inferences in the scriptures to suggest that God should have a wife. In today’s reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, we hear: I remember the devotion of your youth, how you loved me as a bride, following me in the desert, in a land unsown.
The prophets Hosea, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah imagine Jerusalem as the Bride of God. It is a marvelous image and very appropriate. So when the Son of God appears among us, who is his bride? Saint Paul told us: it is the Church.
But some people want a more exciting answer. They cannot imagine a robust fellow like Jesus not having a wife and, presumably, semi-divine children, and semi-semi-divine grandchildren, and so forth; as the strain gets weaker.
To that Jeremiah would say, Be amazed at this, O heavens, and shudder with sheer horror, says the Lord. Two evils have my people done: they have forsaken me, the source of living waters; they have dug themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that hold no water.
The apostolic tradition of our church is creative; it enjoys many legendary stories of the saints. But it’s disciplined; it despises any stories that shortchange the gospel. They are broken cisterns that hold no water. Saint Paul warned us about such imaginary interpretations when he wrote to his disciple Timothy:
For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths. (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

Meanwhile, we should not neglect the reliable stories of St Mary Magdalene. Saint John describes her as that devout soul who continues to love and honor Jesus after all hope is lost. She cannot keep herself from visiting his grave. Whatever common sense may say about the failure of his mission and the debacle of his end, she must still attend his ruined corpse. Even when she sees two brilliantly shining angels sitting in his tomb she still mourns over Jesus. 
It is ironic that a no-nonsense woman like Mary Magdalene has inspired so much nonsense. Like her, we should be satisfied with nothing less than God.

Wednesday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

We have been reading passages from the writings of the prophets Hosea and Isaiah; today we turn to Jeremiah. Like that of the other prophets, this is not a success story. The only successful prophet was the fictitious Jonah, and he succeeds despite his best efforts!

Anyone who wants to be Christian should be prepared for failure. Can the cross mean anything else to anyone who looks hard at it?
Yes, we sing of its triumph – Lift High the Cross! – but we cannot ignore its earthly significance. Jesus triumphal approach to Jerusalem, which had been prepared for months if not years, and the near-riot as he entered the city -- ended in catastrophe, when he was dragged from the city a few days later, and crucified.
So when we hear today’s gospel we hear Jesus’ promise of success despite frustration, disappointment and failure: some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.
Obviously farmers in those days did not have sciences, schools and technologies to develop better methods. After saving some of last year’s crop for this year’s sowing, they broadcast the seed on the ground, then plowed it under. A harvest of twenty-fold was considered abundant.
Jesus promises a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.
Saint John Duns Scotus explains the action of God this way. Ordinary human action will always have mixed results. It will be a blessing and a curse, coming as it does from sinful human beings. But when one acts with the Spirit of God, its blessings are manifold. They continue into eternity! The disciple might not live in this world long enough to see how fruitful her efforts were. But she should have faith nonetheless, because God has everything well in hand.
As the psalmist said:
Those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy.
Those who go forth weeping, carrying sacks of seed,
Will return with cries of joy, carrying their bundled sheaves.

Friars Simon Sauer, Don Halpin and Juniper Cummings share their evening meal in the 
John Loftus Retreat House at Mount Saint Francis

Tuesday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

In the good old days Sister told us to confess all our sins, including missing Sunday Mass or eating meat on Friday, regardless of our excuses. Even if you were undergoing open heart surgery on that particular Sunday, you should confess it – just in case.
Eventually your confessor would tell you to ease up a bit. God surely would not hold that against you. Open heart surgery, being lost at sea or stranded in outer space – although not listed as exemptions in the Book of Life, were probably sufficient reasons for missing Sunday Mass. Your weary confessor may even have said he didn’t want to hear about it anymore. You should believe in God’s mercy.
I know; I’ve been there. I also know that Sister trumps the priest every time and you probably still confess that you missed Mass because the dog opened the gas cap on your car and lapped up all your fuel.
One time I forgot to celebrate the Sunday Mass in a neighboring parish. I had promised the pastor I would be there but was distracted by an event in my own parish. The next week, when I heard confessions at that church, I heard all about it!
But there was something to be said for that scrupulous mentality. If only one thing. It gives us the opportunity to experience God’s mercy in the Sacrament once again. Our God “delights in clemency” and we delight in God’s forgiveness.
Recently, I was supposed to celebrate Mass in Clarksville on a Friday morning. I would have been there but I was stranded in Houston Texas, waiting for a morning flight. I should have called the pastor to tell him I couldn’t be there but it took me three hours to get to the motel and the power went out in an electrical storm and I was thinking “Today is Friday” but it was only Thursday. And so forth. In short, I forgot all about it.
I had a pretty good excuse. But I still owe the people who went without Mass that Friday morning an apology. And they will delight in showing clemency.
The Sacrament of Penance, despite its recent neglect is still with us. It is still one of the most beautiful treasures of our Catholic Church. Whether we deserve it or not, regardless of our reasons or excuses, we celebrate the Sacrament with our God, taking His two hands in our own and dancing for joy. 
Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt
and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance;
Who does not persist in anger forever,
but delights rather in clemency,
And will again have compassion on us,
treading underfoot our guilt?
You will cast into the depths of the sea
all our sins;
You will show faithfulness to
and grace to
As you have sworn to our fathers
from days of old. 

Photo: The Hore Monastery, an ancient ruin below The Rock of Cashel, Ireland. Click on it for larger picture. 

Monday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

The prophet Micah describes a loud, angry lover’s quarrel within the setting of a courtroom. The parties are desperately trying to understand one another, and each thinks the other is wholly unreasonable. We hear a kind of resolution in the closing lines, words that have become very familiar to us:
You have been told, O man, what is good,
and what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do the right and to love goodness,
and to walk humbly with your God.

As simple as that sounds, we have a hard time getting there.
The passage begins with the Lord’s voice, as described by the prophet. God will drag his people before mountains, hills and foundations of the earth to present his case against them. The jury of all creation will surely understand and sympathize with God.
But then God turns and angrily demands of his people, “What have I done to you? How have I failed you?” After everything God has done for his people – which he briefly recounts -- how can they be so pigheaded?
The people reply with increasing irrationality. What does God want? A burnt offering of a year old calf? A thousand rams and rivers of olive oil? My first born son? Is there no pleasing this God?
Which of us has never been swept along in a quarrel like this? Which of us has not appealed to the walls and the furniture to witness her complaints?
Micah accurately describes both a lover’s quarrel and the dilemma we face as we engage in this covenant with God. We’re willing to give so much, but no more. In dealing with God we remember the advice of William Butler Yeats, “Never give all your heart.”
But, unfortunately, we will give all our hearts to the wrong gods – to lovers, spouses, children, parents, pleasures, work, despots, patriotic passions and so forth. These will take all we give and return nothing. But the one who deserves our total worship, who alone is worthy of such worship, who alone can make our supreme sacrifice worthwhile – that one we neglect.
This passage from the Book of the Prophet Micah ends abruptly as the Lord speaks gently and reasonably, with understanding and affection: Here is what I want, only do the right and love goodness and walk humbly with your God.

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The readings today should find deep resonance in the American heart. The principles of justice and mercy are summed up in the practice of hospitality.
In the days of Abraham and Sarah, given the long stretches between one city and the next and the dangers of the road, travelers kept a strict code of ethics whose fundamental principle was hospitality. Abraham was such a traveler, a merchant with an enormous caravan. He and his party traveled from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Encountering friend, stranger or enemy the traveler greeted him with elaborate courtesy – as we see in today’s first reading – and invited him to dine with him and his party. If the person were an enemy – that is, a member of a tribe hostile to one’s own – he should accept the invitation honorably. They might discuss the dangers of the trade route, weather conditions, and political developments. This information was far more important than any animus the travelers might have between them.
In today’s first reading we hear how the Lord rewarded Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality. He promised them a son, although Sarah was well passed her child bearing years. Next week we will also hear of Abraham’s boldness as he negotiated for the life of his wayward nephew, Lot. His extraordinary courtesy had earned him that privilege also. Although he could not save the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, he got what he wanted.
Today’s gospel reading also describes the marvelous hospitality of Saints Martha and Mary to Jesus and his disciples. We should not be distracted by Martha’s momentary indiscretion as we recall how pleased Jesus was to dine in their home.
Martha, Mary and Lazarus welcomed the Lord to their home and he honored them with his divine presence. Martha recognized his physical needs for food while Mary tended his spiritual need for an undistracted listener. Notice how Mary remained silent. Even when her sister attacked her she listened and said nothing. She let Jesus be her champion and savior. These women knew “the way to a man’s heart:” good food and rapt attention to his every word.

Like the ancient Hebrews who escaped from slavery, Americans should remember our origins as we welcome friends, strangers and enemies to our country. The word “alien” has no place in our lexicon. Hospitality welcomes the diversity of languages, religions, philosophies and national origins that are among us already, and those the future brings.
As one who used to direct a retreat center, I know how demanding Lady Hospitality can be. Our guests often needed things I could barely provide, if at all. The handicapped required provisions of every sort: automatic door openers, elevators, special diets, higher toilets, lower lavatories, ASL signers, Braille printing, and so forth. There is simply no end to her demands. My guests wanted to go on retreat and they had every right to make a retreat, if only I could provide for their needs.
And yet Lady Hospitality provides rich, astonishing blessings for everyone who welcomes her. If you can give her nothing more than a glass of cold water, and you do it with eager, willing generosity -- she will shower gifts upon you.
As the American ideal, hospitality eradicates racism even as she honors the talents, history, hope and courage of African-Americans. She teaches our children many languages enabling them to move freely about the country, feeling welcome and at home in all neighborhoods. She heals our sick in her hospitals and shows reverence to the men, women, and children in our prisons. She reverences every religion and helps each devotee to obey the laws of our land, even as they challenge the laws to be more reasonable.
And finally she blesses us as she has for the past 235 years with the blessings of all nations. If we are the envy of all the world, it is because we serve our Lady Hospitality. She – not oil, gas, coal or corn – is still our greatest national asset.

The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes commandThe air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"