Wednesday of the First Week in Lent

A blue bird catches sunlight
At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation
and condemn it,
because at the preaching of Jonah they repented,
and there is something greater than Jonah here."

The Book of Jonah, despite its brevity, is one of the most popular books in the bible. There are innumerable references to it in popular literature, from Melville’s discussion in Moby Dick; to the cartoons with which catechists entertain children. Inevitably the questions arise, “Was he really swallowed alive and spat up by a whale three days later? Is that possible?” Fundamentalists and secularists have a lot of fun with their largely irrelevant controversy.
These questions permit the scholars to ignore the challenge and invitation of Jonah:  Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed." Implicit is the Lord’s authority over the nations who do not know him, and the wrath all nations face when That Day appears.

Lately the Catholic Bishops have reminded the United States of our church’s teaching: artificial means of birth control are morally unacceptable. External controls frustrate the natural cycles of reproduction; they allow men and women to ignore and violate the sacred processes of reproduction within their own bodies. While it may be acceptable to tame an elephant with peanuts, it is not ethical to neuter a man with surgery or a woman with chemicals. 
It is ironic that many on the left speak eloquently of living more naturally, without violent or intrusive methods of control -- but turn a deaf ear to the bishops’ teaching. They have decided the Church wants only to oppress women and dominate nature; they can hear nothing else.
Can a nation that fears our sexual nature, indulges it, and is unwilling to bridle it welcome a life-giving word? (Foreign observers say we deal with our children in the same ways: we’re unwilling to discipline them, far too indulgent, and terrified they might hate us for the trauma of obedience.)
Would we dare to allow our bodies the holiness, mystery and wisdom of a sexuality freed by mindful discipline? Can a man be asked to pay attention to the cycles of his companion's body? It would bond us in reverent, life-long, faithful, and life-giving relationships not only as husbands and wives but also as families and clans.

The matter is not simply private. Sexual relations undergird all familial relations. Undisciplined, they invade our political, economic, social and religious spheres. Even the military, the most disciplined of all institutions, struggles to define and enforce a policy about sexuality. Eventually unbridled sexuality becomes a threat to national security, though by the time it reaches that sublime height it is beyond anyone’s control.
That’s when Jonah arrives to say, Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed." 

Politically, I expect, the Bishops will not win this debate over birth control. That ship left the harbor a long time ago. At best they might protect Catholic institutions from laws that violate our beliefs. In the meanwhile, the Elect are again challenged: “Under whose authority is our sexuality governed?”

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent
The original MSF friary;
the sisters' convent when I was a student;
now the Fr John Loftus House of Prayer

"If you forgive men their transgressions,
your heavenly Father will forgive you.
But if you do not forgive men,
neither will your Father forgive your transgressions."

Forgiveness has never come easily for me. I've known some friars who could not and would not carry a grudge. It had something to do with their genetics and much to do with grace. But I was never so disposed. 
Of course, I thought I was for a long time. "If the Lord says I should forgive then, by golly, I do forgive!" But I didn't. And it took a long time to see that. 
Sometimes I wonder if I've ever forgiven my sixth grade teacher. The poor old woman was teaching her fiftieth class, and there were fifty of us in it. She must have dreaded each day she walked into that room stinking of sweating children. She and I had one thing in common: neither of us could hear very well. She thought I was ignoring her when I couldn't hear her. She thought I was mumbling when I answered her questions. I thought she had taken a particular dislike to me, and I didn't know why. 
I have prayed for her these fifty-plus years since but have never felt forgiveness flow through me. Perhaps forgiveness is not a feeling. How does one feel when one forgives? 
There have been many others I carried a particular animus against. I've prayed for some of them. Others I forgot until some hurtful incident scraped off the old scab and revived the pain. 
I think the human being is a very sensitive creature. We are easily wounded, easily traumatized. We might prefer to think otherwise but in our later years old wounds come back to life. 
I've certainly been the rounds with my deceased parents. I think I only true forgave them when I realized that I would not trade them for any two people on earth. I remain intensely loyal to them and treasure their memory more with each passing year. Since that day I don't miss them anymore. They are closer to me now than ever before. 
They say, "You always hurt the one you love." Perhaps healed hurt, graced by loyalty and affection, is the only true sign of forgiveness. 

Monday of the First Week of Lent

Speak to the whole assembly of the children of Israel and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

There are movements afoot to enshrine the Ten Commandments in every public building in the land. Everyone should know that murder, stealing, adultery and lying are against the Law. They should know that coveting is suspicious and honorable parents deserve honor. 
It seems to me that most people know that. We have a sense of good and evil. The newspapers I read, with their articles and editorials, are replete with moral judgments about various behaviors. 
What they might not understand is this: behind the moral laws there is One who Judges. That One has the right to judge all human behavior and the worth of every human being.
It's easy to resent such a one. Who is He (She or It) to judge me? Am I not responsible for my own behavior, and capable of judging my own rightness and wrongness? Don't I have the right to plead my case and defend my rightness before that mysterious Someone? If my family, friends, neighbors and fellow citizens seem to think I am an okay person who is that One to say they're wrong? Or to overrule their opinion? 

I say I have the right to exist and that settles it! 
If there is such a One he should at least show himself in unambiguous clarity. And He should understand I resent his overbearing presence with all the moral authority I can garner.

It seems to me those who argue this way have a pretty strong case for their secular indifference to God. And those who believe such a God exists fight an uphill battle against the entrenched atheism of our American Civil Religion. 

Fortunately, I believe, the God who reveals himself in our Scriptures is not that god. The Book of Leviticus, from which today's version of the Decalogue is taken, reveals, first, a God who is Holy; and secondly, a God who longs to share his holiness with his chosen people; that is, with us. 
The god of the American Civil Religion is far more invested in freedom, power and righteousness than in holiness. In fact, freedom in that religion has displaced all concern for holiness. I have yet to meet a Veteran of any service, male or female, who volunteered to defend the holiness of our country or its citizenry. It is not in our national interest. 

Holiness among God's people appears through their generous spirit toward the needy. We must be as kindly disposed toward the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned as God's sunshine and rain pours upon the just and unjust alike. No one should be exempt from our mercy for God has shown us great mercy. 

As we prepare for Holy Week and Easter we examine our attitudes not as Americans but as Christians who have been set apart by the grace of God; and we hear God's word again: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

First Sunday of Lent

The H-tree behind
Saint Leonard's Church
After John had been arrested, 
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
"This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel."

Just as Saint Luke gave us a rather precise date when the Messiah was born:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
so he gives us now the moment when Jesus came to Galilee: "After John had been arrested."  The wise know the time! It appears to those who expect it.
Most people frankly were not prepared and are still not prepared. Many won't even notice when we celebrate Easter a few weeks from now. The opportunity will have passed them by. 

We're speaking here of two kinds of time, chronos and kairos. Chronos is measured by the chronometer you wear on your wrist. (Or used to, anyway.) It is the only kind the Enlightenment understands. It is what astrophysicists speak of when they talk about the space/time continuum. It is what your employer uses to assess your wages. Unlike the three dimensions of height, depth and width, time moves in only one direction, forward. It ticks away hour by hour, day by day, remorselessly at what we can only presume is a steady pace. 

Kairos is time measured by its import rather than its length. How important is Christmas? And Easter? A funeral? A wedding? How important are Lent and Holy Week? How important is the Holy Mass? Does it seem to go on forever or does it seem to touch eternity? Does it drag on and on, or sweep right through you? Have you found yourself caught up in endless time? And of your God who receives glory as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be? 
Several years ago I attended a service in Washington DC that lasted over four hours. Leaving the church and glancing at my watch I realized I had lost two hours, since I had guesstimated the program lasted only two hours. 

When Jesus says "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand." we must forget about chronological time and enter his time. The clock will keep on ticking -- apparently forever -- but that chronological time means nothing unless we are willing to fill it with meaning. We must drop everything and plumb the depths of this moment.

There is a time and a season for everything under heaven. Jesus tell us what we must do during this particular time of Lent: "Repent and believe in the Gospel!" It may not come again for you or me. 

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Ashes to ashes
and dust to dust
The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples, saying,
"Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?"
Jesus said to them in reply,
"Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.
I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners."

The Irish tell of the Hungry Grass. If you're walking somewhere in Ireland and suddenly feel a desperate need to eat, you may have trodden upon hungry grass. During the Great Potato Famine of the 1840's someone starved to death on this spot. Many thousands of Irish people starved to death during the Famine, although the island was exporting food. There was more profit in exports than in feeding penniless natives. 

On this fourth day of Lent the question of fasting reappears. It is very important. 

Yesterday I described my own decision to die a skinny old man. Hopefully that day is still a long way off but, like retirement, pensions and IRA's, it requires advance planning. 

One of the major hurdles on the road to good health and spiritual fasting is the fear of hunger. It seems to be encoded in our American DNA. Perhaps it came with the Great Depression which my grandparents' generation survived. Certainly many of our ancestors in Europe faced the hunger that follows in the wake of war. They came to America to escape it. 

For most of us today the fear is irrational. We pay less for food than any nation on earth because our federal government subsidizes the industry. But we panic when we feel the pangs of hunger; and that inevitably leads to overeating.

It doesn't  help that our entertainment media continually display food before our eyes. Desperate to sell their wares, they show fashionably thin people gorging on food. (Obviously they don't film these ads in their own fast food restaurants! Take a look around the next time you're in one!) 

Lent reminds us of the faith, hope and love we invest in God. Although those investments seem to disappear in a bottomless abyss, we believe the Lord will not forget the people who trust and wait on his mercy. 

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Holly Berries
Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits,
and drive all your laborers.
Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting,
striking with wicked claw.
Would that today you might fast
so as to make your voice heard on high!

On New Years Day, last year I decided that I wanted to be a thin old man. I've always admired those skinny old men who carry themselves tall and erect. I told one particular gentleman, "When I get big I want to be thin like you!" 
I was surprised when he told me he weighed a lot more at one time. Several years ago he decided he was tired of carrying around several extra bowling balls (16 lbs each) on his gut and started eating less. Wow! I had just supposed skinny old men were born that way.
I was born that  way. One fellow  told me in high school I looked like a kitchen match, skinny body with a big head. But somewhere along the way I put on a lot more weight. I became a very large man. 
So last year I quit eating sweets. No candy, cookies, cakes, ice cream, desserts, or sodas. 
I made a second, essential resolution: No self-pity! Who needs it! It only sabotages my good intentions. 
One time my mother came to the bottom of the stairs and yelled up at us, "Who's coughing?" "It's me, Momma, Kenny." "Well, stop it!" she said. "Yes, Ma'am." And I did. No pity from Momma, no pity for me.  
Briefly I watched the other friars dive into bowls of ice cream and various sumptuous delights and I was tempted. Not to eat but to feel sorry for myself. But I stifled that nonsense and silently gave them the privilege of their pleasure. 

Since then I've lost 26 pounds. The Internet says I am now within the healthy range for a man of my height, but still at the upper end of it. 

Well into the second year of my One-Day-At-A-Time resolution, I wonder how to spiritualize that good intention. 

One thing I notice about my hunger -- I get mean. I can understand people quarreling and fighting, striking with wicked claw. Hunger with resentment lends itself to that. 

It helps to remember a lot of people in the world -- a lot of children in this country! -- get up hungry, leave the table hungry and go to bed hungry. Hunger is no stranger to human beings. Jesus knew about it and he recommended it to his disciples: The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
and then they will fast."

Hunger is a good way to remember what we're all about as Christians. We should be hungry for righteousness and eager for the Bread of Angels. 

I've never known real hunger, although I grew up in relative poverty. We didn't have much in the way of earthly delights but as a family we enjoyed what we had. By spending frugally and pinching every penny till it squealed, my parents put sufficient food on the table for an ever growing pack of kids. We often had "seconds" of gravy on white bread. My hunger has only been mouth-hunger, not the real stomach hunger we see among the poor. 
Oddly, my siblings and I are taller than Generation Xers and the Millenials. We ate balanced meals without a lot of junk food. 
I want to consecrate my fasting now to the Glory of God who provides generously for all his children. I want to be fearless in the face of hunger. And if I am occasionally out of sorts, Dear Lord, help me keep it to myself! In Jesus' Name I pray.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

A tree on the walk
between the VA hospital
and Saint Leonard's Church
"If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 
"There is a season for everything under heaven" and that includes Penance. Shortly after I was ordained I realized I didn't understand that word. It is core to my identity as a priest, Franciscan friar and Catholic and yet -- 37 years later -- it still illudes me. 
Penance has do with regret for one's sins and the hope for forgiveness. It must include a willingness to atone for wrongdoing, especially one's own wrongdoing. And, given that we are social, historical creatures, a willingness to atone for one's heritage.
Penance is joyous and grateful. It begins with the realization that God has chosen me. I have neither earned nor deserved his grace but He has given me this opportunity. 
But there is no opportunity worthy of the name which is not a challenge, and Penance is most certainly challenging. I must take up the cross the Lord has given me, daily and gratefully, and follow where he leads. 
Gratitude is the hard part. Sometimes I can only say the words "thank you" and hope the effort counts for something. 
The best formula I have for penance is this: I am not God. Thank God.
Remembering that God is still in charge! and I am not gives me the freedom to live as his son and beloved. Remembering that Only God is Good I can drop the pretense and acknowledge my unworthiness and my sins. 
Finally, remembering that God offers me deep and passionate forgiveness, I remember that sin is, By Definition, forgivable. 
This mystery is an endless vortex for contemplation and we have six full weeks to ponder it! 

Ash Wednesday, 2012

A courageous tree
struggles on
between the VA Hospital
and Saint Leonard's Church
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.

For Christians Ash Wednesday and Lent are extraordinarily beautiful. Beginning with our senses there is the promise of spring in the air. Daylight creeps back into our mornings; the air tastes and smells of warmth and vegetation. The threat of snow ebbs away, and is replaced by a promise of rain. Gardeners already browse garden supply stores and catalogs. They are shaking out their soiled gloves and checking their tools. Soon, if not already, farmers will till the soil and plant their seeds.
Ash Wednesday dawns upon us with a promise of restored vitality, both physical and spiritual. It is time to shake off the winter doldrums, the Seasonally Affected Disorder and start walking outdoors again. New Year’s resolutions, born in a rush of secular anticipation, can be baptized and restored by consecration to God.

Today Saint Paul invites us into the season: be reconciled to God.

We remember Saint Francis of Assisi as one of the greatest of saints because he renewed a Church that supposed it didn't need renewing. Perhaps only his contemporary Pope Innocent II saw more clearly the desperate plight of the Church. It had virtually all earthly power: military, economic, intellectual, social and religious. But it was rotting in its core. 

Our situation is in many ways similar. How do we announce the mercy of God to people who already know God's mercy? 

There is only one way. We must own and confess our sinfulness. Should we tell other people about their sinfulness? Don't waste your breath. 

Nor can we use the usual platitudes: "I know I am not perfect but...." or "I am a sinner like everyone else." Please don't patronize God with such twaddle. No one believes you when you say "There but for the grace of God go I." You don't really believe that. 

Words mean so little in a world saturated with words. Only actions matter and the actions of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving -- as we find in today's gospel. The work of owning and confessing our sins must be performed in silence, behind closed doors where only God sees. In today's Gospel from The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus insists on the private nature of our practices.  

Abandoning all hope of changing the exterior world, Christians set out in Lent to do the interior work of penance. We want only to be reconciled to God and we understand we must pass through that narrowest of gates -- penance. 

Like the farmer who buries precious seed in the moist earth, we will bury our good deeds in darkness and silence. What God does with them and us -- is God's business. 

Tuesday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

The sky above;
the sky below.
Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?
You covet but do not possess.
You kill and envy but you cannot obtain;
you fight and wage war.
You do not possess because you do not ask.
You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly,
to spend it on your passions.

Inquisitive school children often raise that question. War seems so utterly irrational, counter-productive and unnecessary. No one will admit he wants war. So why do they happen?
Americans insist we want only peace and prosperity, and yet we maintain the largest military force on earth -- more powerful and better financed than all other nations put together – and seem to be continually involved in military conflicts. Even during a global recession, when every other nation cuts back on military spending, we agonize over the slightest cutbacks.

Saint James answers our children’s question: it is from your passions that make war within your members. You covet, envy, kill, and fight; and so you wage war. All because you do not ask. Or if you ask, you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
Saint James goes on to teach a simpler way of peace: Ask for it. I always think of the blind Bartimaeus when I think about asking. The gospel of Saint Mark recalls how insistently he shouted at Jesus, “Son of David, have pity on me.” He kept shouting despite the crowd’s attempt to hush him. When Jesus called him, he abandoned his cloak in his rush to get to Jesus. When Jesus asked, “What do you want?” he said, “I want to see!” Finally, with his new ability to see, the blind man followed Jesus – because that’s what eyes are for.
Jesus’ straight answer and Bartimaeus’ direct response are wonderful. All our relations should be so simple, and especially that with God.
I find in this story the formula for asking: it must be urgent and persistent; it must be uncondtional; that is, ready to abandon everything else. It must be eager to follow the Lord. When the beggar dropped his cloak he dropped everything he owned in this world. There was nothing to hold him back.

How much would we surrender for the sake of peace? Would we ask our military to step down? Would we cede economic and political leadership of the world? Would we allow other nations to develop forms of government which are neither democratic nor republican, and seem entirely alien to us? Would we lend assistance without military materiel, personnel and know-how? 
To accept the peace our God would give us, we must surrender every condition we put upon it. Peace will not make allowance for choosing which babies should be born and which destroyed; an unequal distribution of resources; or a reserve of nuclear weapons. 

But it is there for us – when we’re ready.

Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

The trees cry out,
"Here I am!"
ready for spring.
He said to them in reply,
"O faithless generation, how long will I be with you?
How long will I endure you? Bring him to me." 

We have met already a deaf man with a severe speech impediment. Jesus touched his ears and lips with muddied saliva and healed him.
Today we encounter another mute person, but his affliction is far worse. His “mute and deaf spirit” throws him into fire and water and threatens the child’s life, despite his father’s intense love. Jesus disciples have also tried their hand at driving out the demon and failed.
The whole story is laced with fearful details and the challenge evokes several strong emotional reactions in Jesus. First Jesus complains: "O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?” A minute later he rebukes the child’s father, "’If you can!' Everything is possible to one who has faith."
Only in the Gospel of Saint Mark do we encounter such strong feelings in Jesus, and this passage is especially revealing. A shallower reading might suggest the Messiah was in a bad mood after the high of his Transfiguration. Coming back to Earth is such a downer! Perhaps he is suffering the inevitable clash with reality that always follows our best moments. 
But none of the evangelists show much interest in Jesus’ personal experience. Questions like: “What was he feeling, thinking and expecting; what did he think about himself?” will not appear in our literature for many centuries.
But the stories are certainly connected; we can trust the artistry of Saint Mark that far. We have descended from the serenity of Mount Tabor to the valley of demonic possession. Jesus’ emotional reaction registers that passage and signals the importance of this story. His freeing the child of a deaf and mute spirit is a synecdoche for his entire ministry as Savior of the World. We observe, through the lens of a father’s anguish and Jesus’ intervention, the universal dimensions of despair and hope, doubt and faith, sickness and healing, and death and resurrection.  We encounter this cosmic struggle in the father’s hesitant prayer, Jesus’ challenge, and again in the father’s exclamation, which is both a plea for help and a confession of inadequacy: "I do believe, help my unbelief!"
Finally Jesus delivers the stunning word that frees the troubled boy. He speaks with enormous authority and finality:
Mute and deaf spirit, I command you:
come out of him and never enter him again!"
But the full impact of Jesus’ command is delayed. For a moment the boy lay like a corpse, which caused many to say, “He is dead.” Even as Jesus lay dead in a grave for three days, so does this child lie in stunned silence until the breath of life returns.
The apparent death of the child connects to Jesus’ passion evokes our Sacrament of Baptism. He had been thrown into fire and water (symbols of Baptism) on occasion, but now he emerges from the throes of death to breathe again when Jesus takes his hand and raises him to his feet.

Finally, we the Baptized find ourselves in this story. We have been stricken with an inability to hear God’s word. We were mute and could not speak to God. In our desperation we indulged in self-destructive behaviors. But we have died with him and are now raised up. Although our faith could not save us, Jesus has restored our faith, healed us and invested us with Eternal Life. 

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

A gnarled, living tree
accommodates power lines
and a bus stop sign
Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was too violent for my tastes, but I was very grateful for that moment when “Jesus” spoke tenderly to his “mother” and said, “See, I make all things new.” The scene expressed the evangelical joy of the Messiah as he bore his cross, a joy which did not appear elsewhere in the film.
Isaiah prophesied that joy hundreds of years before the Christ was born. It is a joy like that of a woman who forgets the pain of labor with the joy of a newborn child. It is an elation which remembers not the events of the past .
Isaiah found a despondent, bewildered people as he ministered to the exiled Jews in Babylon. They had suffered more grief than most of us can imagine: the murder, mutilation and rape of loved ones, the destruction of their homes, livelihood and city; deportation from their homeland; the long trek to Babylon, and subjection to a foreign, pagan regime. They were under imperial orders to “forget your people and your father’s house.” They had survived so far only because they had skills useful to their captors, or so it seemed.
Isaiah would assure them, “We have survived because God loves us.”
He reached down from on high and seized me;
drew me out of the deep waters.
He rescued me from my mighty enemy,
from foes too powerful for me.
They attacked me on my day of distress,
but the LORD was my support.
He set me free in the open;
he rescued me because he loves me. (Psalm 18: 17-20)

In today’s gospel, Saint Mark celebrates that unexpected, inexplicable joy that has appeared in Jesus. They hardly know what to make of him as he heals a paralyzed man and forgives his sins. The Pharisees objected to Jesus declaration. “Who can forgive sins but God?”  they said. They instinctively objected to his statement because their hope of seeing anything new had died a long time ago.
But when he went ahead and healed the man they were awestruck. Their objections fell away like the leaves from a tree in a late autumn gale. They could not think, so great was their astonishment.
They were all astounded and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this."

With the dawn of this Third Millennium we have become inured to new things. Innovation is a way of life for us, except in the field of religion. Some people cling to the platitudes of the past even as we plunge into the future. They expect nothing new from God even as the dominant culture pummels us with its own message, “Forget your people and your father’s house.” 
I often hear that complaint, “I used to go to church but when I go now it's not the same church.” Well of course not! Did you expect your old neighborhood to remain unchanged after you moved away? Did you expect your former employers to keep using typewriters when the world learned to compute? Did you expect us to ignore God’s guidance until you decided to return?

Your ship sailed on after you jumped overboard! We couldn’t turn it around to search for you, on the off-chance you might want to be found. To reenter the Church you’ll have to catch up with us and be swept along with us in the gales of God's mercy. You will learn to see things as you never saw them before. You will taste that wisdom of which Saint Augustine sings:
“Too late have I loved you, O Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Too late I loved you! And behold, you were within, and I abroad, and there I searched for you; I was deformed, plunging amid those fair forms, which you had made. You were with me, but I was not with you. Things held me far from you—things which, if they were not in you, were not at all. You called, and shouted, and burst my deafness. You flashed and shone, and scattered my blindness. You breathed odors and I drew in breath—and I pant for you. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for your peace” (St. Augustine, Confessions).

Saturday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

photo on the walk
from the VA Hospital
to Saint Leonard's Church
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature
can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species,
but no man can tame the tongue.
It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

I know of no other member of the body which receives such vilification from the sacred authors as the tongue. True, Jesus recommends we cut off our hands or pluck out our eyes if they cause us to sin, but there are far more laudatory remarks about the hands and eyes. Not even the brain, Woody Allen’s “second favorite organ,” is condemned like the tongue, not to mention his favorite organ! 

Throughout the New Testament we hear of the tongue’s great damage. The apostles and evangelists complain relentlessly about gossip, backbiting, rumor and factions.  Though the Church is hurt by apostasy (betrayal of the faith) and scandalized by adultery, the real demon is talk.

And talk is something we all do.

Whenever we’re distracted from our purpose, whenever we lose our focus on Jesus – and it only takes a moment – we’re likely to indulge in a little gossip. No sooner has the minister left the sanctuary or the congregation stepped from the pews before it begins.

True, sometimes we must meet and discuss emerging problems. An uneasy feeling about suspicious behavior often merits discussion. Perhaps we know something that no one of us can guess, and discover it only with deliberate conversation. The body politic has a right and duty to protect itself from harm. This conversation should be conducted carefully and prayerfully, with confidence that God will show us what to do. If it dies in idleness and a failure to act, the problem may be compounded.

Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus curbs the tongue as his prayer, that all may be one, is accomplished. His prayer cannot fail. We must not let it fail. With his prayer for unity anchored in our hearts we will speak of one another reverently, with gratitude and respect. We will greet each other cheerfully each day, and welcome one another with enthusiasm. Realizing that we are all one, and that we stand together before the world and the Judgment Seat of God, we will claim one another as brothers and sisters, despite the secret reservations that lie just below the tongue.

Friday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Eucharistic Ministers,
faithful volunteers
at the VA hospital
Thus the Scripture was fulfilled that says,
Abraham believed God,
and it was credited to him as righteousness,
and he was called the friend of God.
See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
For just as a body without a spirit is dead,
so also faith without works is dead.

Saint Paul in his letters to the Romans and Galatians and the Letter of Saint James refer to Genesis 15:6:
And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

In today’s scripture Saint James uses the verse to strengthen his argument that “faith without works is dead.” That is not unlike Saint Paul’s challenge to those Jews who had joined his congregation in Rome: they are saved not by observance of the Mosaic Law but by faith.
And yet the same apostle would say of faith and works:
…if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing.

The apostles James and Paul continually challenge the securities we would build for ourselves:
·         You are not saved by the law but by faith;
·         you are not saved by faith but by good works;
·         you are not saved by good works but by love.

And yet, as T.S. Eliot said in his poem East Coker, Love would be love for the wrong thing, even love is not all that reassuring. 

Our scriptural and poetic authors seem to be continually circling around the vortex of a mystery, inviting us to be swept into it, and yet lambasting our inability to discover its access. They will answer us when we demand, “How can one be saved?” but it never seems to be the same answer!

Nor is Jesus all that helpful. When the young man asks Jesus how he might be saved, the Messiah tells him, “Obey the Law.” The lad replies, “I have done this since my youth!” to which Jesus replies, “Sell everything you have, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow me!”

Very likely my answer would be even less helpful: “Go to church!”

Perhaps it’s the continual circling around that vortex and our willingness to be drawn into its depths by which we’re saved. We practice being open and eager. We are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, without the assurance of what exactly is righteousness, even as we live by the Law, practice good works, love one another and believe God’s word. It may be something we have but cannot see and would never dare to claim. It may be found in The Cloud of Unknowing in which Moses and Elijah -- and Jesus -- disappeared.

Thursday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Did not God choose those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?
But you dishonored the poor.
Are not the rich oppressing you?
And do they themselves not haul you off to court?

Recently some American politicians have begun accusing one another of arousing “class warfare.” The accusation comes easily, I suppose, because class is always standing on the sidelines in a democracy, waiting its chance to come on the political field.
Human beings, like wolves and chickens, may be instinctively class conscious. We seem to fall naturally into familiar patterns of superiority and inferiority. Some are born leaders; others are good followers. Whenever we must engage in a complex project that involves planning and people we look to leadership to see the big picture, work out the details and coordinate our efforts. It’s a rare project of any worth that one individual can create, undertake and finish entirely alone. Even if it’s magnificent we’ll carp about our lack of input in the project.
So we naturally develop patterns of superiority and inferiority, but we also demand respect for the least among us. Superiors should be servants of the rest.
Our Christian tradition especially honors that sense of justice and fair play. If the greatest among us should be honored for their foresight and courage when we have accomplished a mighty deed, the least among us demands our respect because she too did her part.  

Saint James challenges his disciples, “Are not the rich oppressing you?” Ironically – and this often comes as a staggering realization – the powerful often feel like victims. We’re hearing that push-back now when the Occupy movement points out the inequities of our system. When they ask, “Should one percent of our people control more than half the wealth?” they meet complaints about hurt feelings, “Class warfare!” and the woeful cry, “I work hard for my money!” – as if hard work makes one wealthy. 
Saint James had it right: class is real; the rich oppress the poor; and they strip the poor of what little they have with their misuse of the courts. 
And do they themselves not haul you off to court?
Denying that, you might as well command the waves to stop.  James’ prophetic statement remains as an eternal challenge to our manners and mores. Class divisions may be necessary in our political world – to get things done – but they have no place in our churches, and should have no place in our economic and social world.

Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

…everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger
for anger does not accomplish
the righteousness of God.

As a child I learned about anger: Don’t do it. Some people might enjoy the privilege of anger but I was not among the elect. And so I grew up very angry. One of my seminary professors described me as that ad we used to see in the 1960's -- a little fellow kicking the world as if it were a tire. It took me a long time to see my anger, and even longer to think I might have reason for it. 
They tell me that people who love and trust one another are often angry with each other. It’s a vital part of their relationship. During angry moments faithful lovers communicate; clear up misunderstandings; explore differences; reveal sensitivities and sensibilities; claim rights, privileges, likes and dislikes; redraw boundaries; heal old wounds; salve new ones; reassure; restate; recommit and reconcile. That sounds wonderful.
Unfortunately, many lovers miss the opportunities and their relationships, even vowed relationships, fail.

I have a nasty little secret: It’s fun to be angry. Anger stimulates adrenalin and drives the body even as the mind grows sharpens. It gives me an intoxicating sense of power, superiority and righteousness. “By God I have a right to be angry!” even if I don’t. Tennyson celebrated the exhilaration of anger in his poem Ulysses. The hero claims to have…
“…drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met!”

Anger is an upsurge of the self; it demands attention. Habitual, irrational suppression of the angry self stifles nature and must eventually fail. Though it is locked in a fiery pit for a thousand years, anger will eventually break out.
If my anger was suppressed and submerged, I watch others who let it have free rein. They control people with anger and the threat of anger. They say things like, “You make me angry,” and thus disown responsibility for their rage. People tiptoe around them, try to please them, blame themselves and generally fall into codependent dysfunction. It’s not a pretty picture.

Anger, like everything else in my life, must be subject to obedience. There is, as Qoheleth said, a time for everything under heaven; and anger certainly should enjoy his place in the sun. At Christ’ behest it is a force for justice, especially when it protects and promotes the needs of others.  Anger is a work animal, like dogs and horses. Given direction, discipline and depth it can accomplish the righteousness of God.