Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'"

Once again there are stories in the news media of a priest's criminal acts of pedophilia and a bishop's reluctance to address the crimes.

In today's gospel Jesus' follows his dreadful parable about scandal in the Church and millstones around the neck with a thoroughly rational but breathtakingly radical teaching, "Cut it off!" 

Too often I see in the hospital men with red, swollen calves and feet, and blackened toes. Obesity, diabetes and tobacco take their toll on the vascular system, causing cellulitis. I am no doctor and I make neither prognosis nor diagnosis, but it's not hard to see what's coming. They will have to amputate. As terrible as it sounds, the Veterans are usually relieved by the news; the pain of these dead limbs has become unbearable.

But amputation is not as radical as it sounds. To be healthy, we often have to put certain things out of our life. As Saint Paul said, "When I was a child, I used to think as a child...; but now that I have become a man, I have put away the things of childhood."

In the following of Christ, as we grow and age in grace, we must undergo many amputations. I can't eat as much as I used to. I can't work as much as I used to. I can't party till the wee hours on Friday night and show up at work on Monday as I did more than once. Some habits and attitudes must be left behind. Biases and prejudices about certain types of people must be abandoned. They may have been socially acceptable in the 1960's but they are sinful today. 

When the Lord points to something in me and says, "Forget it," it's poison from that day forward. I have no choice but to let it go.

The Church has had to amputate some of its old habits, and it's not been easy. But not to do so is worse. Just when we thought our new best practices were taking effect, a bishop was discovered fudging. Bishop Robert Finn failed to report suspected child abuse to the authorities and faces two years probation for misdemeanor. Jesus was not kidding when he spoke of plucking out eyes and amputating hands and feet. If you would be his disciple you better get serious. 

Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,
where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'"

Feast of the Archangels: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael

And he said to him, "Amen, amen, I say to you,
you will see heaven opened
and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."

Every book of the Bible affirms the presence of angels. No scripture writer addressed the question of their existence because there was no question. Jesus almost casually mentions them in this conversation with Nathanael. 

They were always welcome in our churches in the form of statues and stained glass windows until the modernizing era after the Second Vatican Council. More than a few wits noticed that, just as our Protestant brethren and sistren were developing greater interests in Catholic rituals and traditions (anointing, Mary, holy water, Eucharist, etc) Catholics were losing theirs. Angels also appear often on Broadway, TV and the silver screen.At Mount Saint Francis, angels who lighted the way for visitors to the chapel are now overseeing the lake and marking wooded trails.  

Since I was a part of that mighty upheaval I don't worry too much about it. Newer, more dynamic forms of art will soon reintroduce angels to our worship with all their rushing fire intact.

Angels and saints represent the personhood of God. The scholastic theologian would speak of God's wisdom, authority, compassion, protection, justice and so forth. Though the theologian intended to give God the glory with these words, they lacked vitality. 

But angels and saints personify God's virtue with added dimensions of mystery. Gabriel was known as the Guardian of Israel but when he appears in Mary's bower the terrifying warrior is gracious and deferential; glittering, gleaming and beaming with all his glory, he patiently awaits her reply. 

We encountered God's mighty power in the first book of the Bible when a word created the heavens and the earth, but we're bowled over by the instantaneous victory Michael wins over the heavenly Dragon. We hope that God cares for our marital problems and physical ailments but the Book of Tobit shows us just how particular God's care can be through the ministry of Raphael. 

The angels display the mysterious, personal depths of a God who cares for each and all of his people. There is no impersonal doom, luck or karma in the Bible. Nor is their a deus absconditus -- an absent god -- of secular thought. Our faith in angels, not our fate, assures us of the mystery of the One who comes to meet us in our world and lead us by the hand. 

Friday of the Twenty-fifth Week

Penny for your thoughts?
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build.

The best remembered and most-often cited passage of Ecclesiastes is today’s song: “There is an appointed time for everything.” If people sometimes wonder why this apparently pessimistic, even cynical work was placed in our Bible, they have only to study this passage. It is a wise saying for every age and every culture. Only the most arrogant would think they can control time.
But the passage also fits well into Qoheleth’s thought. Here is a man who has, by his own admission, tried to do things his own way. He has tried to force the hour. He may have attempted even to leave his mark in history. The reader might say, “Well, he has written this immortal work!” But Qoheleth is only a title; we don’t know who he was, when or where he lived. The word means collector (of students or of proverbs). He was a redactor, an editor of other people’s thought.
Today’s song of the times celebrates the sage’s surrender to the mystery of life. There are no proverbs which apply to every time. One moment’s wisdom is another moment’s foolishness.
I was greatly influenced by, and somewhat active in, the anti-war movement of the 1960’s. I saw nothing useful or good about war. “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” I asked, as if the issue could be reduced to a bumper sticker. Fifty years later, we might still debate the merits of that particular war. But today I find myself more open to the terrible wisdom of Qoheleth: There is a time for war, and a time for peace. To misread the time is not wisdom; it is disastrous. Though I opposed the invasion of Afghanistan when it began ten years ago, as a reaction to attacks of 9/11/2001, I cannot say that an American military adventure is always wrong in every situation.
Only the Spirit of God knows what the time is. Should I listen or speak? Should I embrace or keep a distance? Should I help or refuse to help? In every active day there are a thousand situations in which I make such choices, for better or for worse. Daily surrender to prayer helps immensely in guiding me through these choices.

Memorial of Saint Vincent de Paul

One who knows
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
What profit has man from all the labor
which he toils at under the sun?
One generation passes and another comes,
but the world forever stays.

Like the Book of Job, the wisdom book of Qoheleth, also known as Ecclesiastes, is widely read as ancient literature, even by people with little interest in Jewish or Christian scripture. It's style, mood and teachings encourage skepticism about nostrums, criticism of popular opinions and beliefs, and distrust of recognized authorities. Its place in the Bible suggests that Jewish thinkers sometimes doubted the given wisdom of Proverbs. The just are not always rewarded; the wicked are not always punished. The cowboys in white hats are not always the good guys. The optimism of good times is not necessarily more reliable than the pessimism of bad times. All sides deserve a hearing.

Qoheleth is the sour old man who challenges the optimism of youth, saying "I too was young and hopeful once, but now I am old and disappointed. You may suffer the same fate." 

If nothing else, Ecclesiastes encourages an open mind toward life. Don't be too quick to judge. Things are not always as they seem. 

The author was not schooled in our belief that God's kingdom will come with Jesus' second coming. Written long before Christ's birth, he saw human life and history as purposeless meandering. Don't be in any hurry because we're not going anywhere anyway. It's better to stop and smell the roses; and, if you must travel to get somewhere, don't forget to enjoy the scenery along the way. 

Thirty years ago, suffering severe depression and an unexpected exhaustion at the ripe old age of 31, I felt very defensive about my sadness. When well-intentioned people tried to cheer me up, I swore I would not forget this experience of helpless grief. I believed there was something valuable in my experience. I took the pills they offered, endured the ECT -- electro-convulsive treatment popularly known as "shock treatment" -- and wept several times a day.  

I knew nothing about depression and no one could explain it to me. Even the best explanations could not touch the depth of my experience. And I really hated it when people assured me I would recover some day and be grateful for the experience. I don't like it when people tell me how the movie or novel ends; and, since this is my life, I'll thank you for not interpreting my story! 

When I meet depressed individuals today, I remember my sadness. I often tell the psych patients in the VA hospital, "Though I am not a veteran of the military, I am a veteran of the psych ward." Some of the men are encouraged by that; others are even more deeply distressed because they think that superior individuals (like priests, doctors, heads of state and themselves) should not have to undergo such trials. 

I also insist that, while they should take their medicines and work with the professionals, they must undertake the spiritual work they have neglected so far. 

Like me when I was young, they don't usually see they have neglected certain spiritual chores. They think they have followed the clear and straight path to meaning, satisfaction and happiness. It can take years to discover what they were not seeing. 

In the hospital I see that many physical injuries can heal rapidly, but it takes a whole lot longer to heal the mind. And the soul? It takes nothing less than one's entire life. Plus wisdom, courage, surrender to truth and ineffable grace. 

Welcome, fellow traveler, to the road. 

Wednesday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time
Backyard art

...give me neither poverty nor riches;
provide me only with the food I need;
Lest, being full, I deny you,
saying, "Who is the LORD?"
Or, being in want, I steal,
and profane the name of my God.

Once again we hear the Hebrew Proverbialists speaking simple wisdom. They will not pretend to be saints, asking for overwhelming distress so as to prove their love of God. They don't aspire to be heroes. 

Recently I committed the grave error of responding to a pro-gun blogger. At last count I received angry rebukes from a half-dozen correspondents. My brief experience reminded me that the pro-gun lobby is touchy, foul-mouthed and have too much time on their hands. You would think that a lobby that controls both houses of Congress, the Presidency and the Supreme Court would not be terribly anxious.  

But, like Alexander the Great, they need more battles to fight and more wars to win. They are heroes. They dream of the opportunity to do battle with a shooter like Jared Lee Loughner or James Holmes. In a movie theater near you!

The Christian has only one hero, and that is Jesus. We keep our sights fixed on him. If I met someone who told me the Holy Spirit has roused in her a desire for heroic opportunities, I would advise her to get a very good spiritual director, and not me. I'm doing well to avoid the temptations of chocolate and oversleeping, and I fail often. 

America has already seen too many romantic heroes. It was romantic notions that drove us into Vietnam almost fifty years ago. We could remake that unfortunate land in our own image. And then we fell for the sucker punch of 9/11 to rush into Afghanistan and Iraq. Heroes! We would save the world from terrorism. We called for, but wouldn't wait for, the help of other nations. We could do it ourselves. 

Behind, like every hero, behind the Lone Ranger's mask, we neglect our own children. The sick, the disabled, the elderly, the imprisoned and the needy go begging. We have the world's strongest military -- and no one to fight with but each other; which is why the body politic is split right down the middle between red and blue states. 

Lord, give us neither poverty nor riches; 
  Our wealth is driving us insane; but our dread of poverty is crippling; 
provide us only with the food we need; 
  something healthy and nourishing, but no more than that;
Lest, being full, we deny you, saying, "Who is the LORD?" 
  as we have too many times already;
Or, being in want, we steal, 
  from our children's future and the world's resources 
and profane the name of God.

Tuesday of the 25th Week of Ordinary Time

Like a stream is the king's heart in the hand of the LORD; wherever it pleases him, he directs it.

Elsie and her Buddy
As a kid idling while I was supposed to be washing dishes, I sometimes watched how a thin stream of water cut a track through powdered soap in bottom of the basin. It meandered, though I didn't know that word which was coined after the Meander River in Turkey. If you click on that link you might see an aerial photo of the Meander River, which still wanders through the Turkish plain. My not-so-long-suffering mother could not appreciate the beauty of these meditations but they come back to me a half-century later. 

The Hebrew Proverbialist could never imagine that things happened randomly. He or she supposed that God directed all streams and rivers as well as human affairs. He was especially sure that God directed the heart of his Anointed King. Of course many of those kings in Judah and Israel were not nearly so compliant as this ideal king, but that's beside the point. 

The proverb presents a model for our compliance to the Holy Spirit. Catholics readily suppose that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, enjoyed that grace. She is the Daughter of God, Bride of the Spirit and Mother of Jesus; and especially in her role as Spouse she trusted in God. 

Likewise, God trusts her; so when we ask Mary to pray for us we know that Mary wants what God wants and God wants what Mary wants. There is no difference of opinion between them. 

Saint Augustine, contemplating the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, also taught something similar. He said, "Love God and do what you want." That's a breath-takingly radical teaching and we should approach it in fear and trembling. Only a fool would suppose that he knows the mind of God, or a deeply convicted prophet/saint. 

But there are times when, after habitual prayer and serious reflection, we know what we have to do and we do it. The good parent has to believe she knows the right thing to do when she disciplines -- that is, makes a disciple of -- her child. The child may not express immediate gratitude for her insistence but she stands firmly upon her God-given authority. If she did not exercise authority there would be little point to her being a parent. 

Leaders in the church -- both clerical and lay must occasionally stand upon the same assurance. They might say, "A decision must be made; we have asked God to guide our deliberations and this is the decision we make, given the wisdom we have at this time." 

Later events might raise doubts about the wisdom of that choice. That's a risk we always take, but life doesn't allow us perfect insight, foresight and hindsight. And if those later events raise doubts about the decision, still later events might reconfirm them! Who knows? 

We might find our decisions were tainted by short-sightedness, fear or greed. So we do penance, confess our sins, and move on -- always trusting in the God who is Merciful. 

We worship a God who abides with us in the here and now, who is also the Lord of History. God alone knows where we're going and reveals The Plan only in small doses of comprehensible insight. 

I talked with a fellow recently who had to make the choice to withdraw life support from his father. Clearly the old man had suffered irreversible brain damage and would never wake up. The younger man suffered much anguish as he discussed the decision with his grandmother, his sisters, and his children. Only after the funeral, which included a liturgy of divine mysteries, was he assured that he been led like the meandering stream in the Hand of the Lord. 

Monday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Refuse no one the good on which he has a claim when it is in your power to do it for him. Say not to your neighbor, "Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give," when you can give at once.

These verses from Proverbs 3 could be the motto for every business; it is certainly the spirit and attitude of the VA hospital where I serve as chaplain. Everyone from patients, families and volunteers to administrators and tax payers, with the nurses and doctors and technicians in between -- agrees that Veterans should be given their due. They have served our country honorably and we honor their service.
I would like to think this is the attitude every hospital cultivates about its patients among its staff. It gives a leg up in a very competitive industry and it’s the right thing to do. I stand in awe of nurses who care for patients who have dedicated their lives to care of their patients. I admire the doctors who take the time to know their patients and try to meet the patient’s need for recognition as well as medical attention. A lot of people are trashed in a throw-away society but that doesn’t mean this patient’s dignity should be disrespected.
It’s painful to watch broken human beings enter the hospital. Many are wasted by their own foolish choices. Perhaps they were conned into believing what the culture tells them – that the brain is a plaything, that air is greatly improved by smoke, that a lot of food is better than enough food, that pain is always bad and should be annihilated with “pain killers.” And so forth. Which of us has not fallen into one or another of these traps?
But no human being with a sense of decency can refuse the good to which another has a claim, especially in terms of health care, shelter, food and protection. Though we may disagree with how supportive infrastructures are built and maintained, I don’t suppose many will vote to abandon the needy in the wilderness. It’s not in our nature to do so.
People brought their sick to Jesus in the wilderness. There were no hospitals in those days. Though the Romans could assemble huge armies they never thought of constructing hospitals. Romans were about power, not human dignity or respect. And so:
Great crowds came to him, having with them the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute, and many others. They placed them at his feet, and he cured them. Matthew 15: 30
Jesus was a human being like you and me. The sick had a claim on him and he could not refuse. It was not in his nature to do so.

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

They quarreled among themselves as to who was the greatest.

There's something soothing
about black and white photos.
As Election Day closes in upon us, we hear this gospel about the disciples quarreling among themselves. Which of them should take Jesus’ place? It should be obvious no one can replace Jesus; and I don’t suppose any of the contenders will openly admit such ambition; but that is the subtext.
During the electoral year, as the parties quarrel over which candidate should lead, we might do well to remember certain truths. First, despite the claims and counter-claims of each party, the President has little control over the economy. Money is like water; it goes where it wants to go. We can dredge channels, put up dams and dikes, and erect storm sewers, levees, weirs and canals; but when storms and floods come they’re largely uncontrolled. They dig their own channels and throw up their own levees while people wring their hands and complain about the government.
While both major parties blame each other for the troubled economy, both of them know their arguments are hugely irrelevant. Only the electorate actually believes their president -- great man that he is -- has such power.
Secondly, democracy has yet to prove itself a better form of government than any other. David's descendants ruled in Jerusalem for six hundred years; Egyptian pharoahs for several thousand. Our two hundred and thirty six years is a good start given the awkwardness we've built into our three-branched system with a bicameral legislature.  Any government system that fears the poor enough to provide for their basic needs will do well. A government with corrupt or incompetent leaders who regard the poor with contempt will collapse.
Democracy, to its credit, seems to manage prosperity pretty well; but it doesn’t do so well with hardship. The electorate can make sacrifices only for short periods, when it believes the reward is in sight; and when it believes everyone is sharing the sacrifice equally. It sees no purpose in recessions and depressions. If the electorate, like their representatives in the stock market, are driven by greed and fear, they will admire the wealthy and despise the poor. That's never a good choice. Meanwhile, the truly wealthy and their stooges will demonstrate their contempt for the system and the electorate as they pour billions of dollars into super-PAC funds. 
Finally, we get the leadership we deserve; our leaders are no wiser and no more ethical than those who choose them. No one should pretend to be shocked by the cheating, bribery and philandering of their elected officials. As Pogo famously remarked, “We have met the enemy and they are us.”
In today's gospel Jesus gives his disciples a gentle, but unforgettable lesson in leadership.
"If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all."
Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
"Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.""
He chose the child not because she was cute or adorable but because she was powerless. In the culture of Jesus' day, a child's opinions meant nothing. Her beliefs were what people told her. At best she was only an investment toward her parents' old age, but she would be the first to die when famine struck; and the first left behind when armies approached. Her family might certainly grieve her death but children were more easily replaced than mature adults. 

Jesus demonstrates that his leaders must protect the children first, both born and unborn. They must also protect the poor, the elderly, the disabled and despised -- everyone whom the Powers consider expendable. 

I have yet to hear a candidate of either major party say anything about the voiceless among us, especially the imprisoned. But there is still time. Christians can make a difference in this election if we speak up for the despised among us. You get the leadership you deserve. 

Saturday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Someone may say, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come back?"
You fool! What you sow is not brought to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be but a bare kernel of wheat, perhaps, or of some other kind.
Recently I read Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell, in which he sets out to answer some of the FAQ's about eternity. Mr Bell takes a far gentler approach than our beloved Apostle Paul.
In my experience, not many people are really concerned about divine judgment, heaven or hell.  Most have heard the word that God is good and "especially good to me, so I don't have to worry about it." If their god is not exactly a sugar daddy, he is certainly an astute merchant who believes the customer is always righteous, despite whatever evidence to the contrary.
The mid-century American Protestant theologian Paul Tillich outlines six different areas in which the human creature meets difficulty and seeks perfection. (If I can remember them all...), Following is a simple diagram of these are:

Absolute negative
Relative negative

Relative positiive
Absolute positiive 
1. Health

Eternal Life
2. Community

3. Meaning
Frustration and Disappointment

4. Satisfaction

Satisfaction and Fullness
5. Vindication

Vindication and Innocence  (restored)
6. Ease
Pain and Suffering
Discomfort and Dis-ease

Belonging, grounding, ownership

Not all religions promise Eternal Life. It's not the irresistible carrot that drives everyone's cart; nor is the threat of eternal damnation a stick to goad everyone. Some people are more fascinated by satisfaction for their work; others, by purpose and meaning; and still others, ownership and belonging. Warlike people seek vindication, especially through the unholy path of revenge. The Hebrew Scriptures often speak of vindication for people who are regarded as fools for their faith in God, or who have been wrongly accused of crime.
But neither any one of these categories nor all of them put together define what the human being really wants. The religious person might say "God" but the mystic might say nothing at all. It's beyond expression. 
Saint Paul was clearly fascinated by the Resurrection of Jesus and he looked forward to being with Jesus for all eternity. His idea of Eternal Life was more than resuscitation in a heavenly place. He had tasted intimacy with God a few times in his life, especially on the road to Damascus; and he ardently believed that Jesus had called him to pursue this New Way which he had formerly persecuted.
As each of us works out our salvation, it helps to remember that the word has many meanings to many people. Christians believe that Jesus has opened the way for us to that mysterious place, regardless of its name. 
For "There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4: 12)