Tuesday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

To keep the law is a great oblation,
and he who observes the
commandments sacrifices a peace offering.

In today's gospel, Peter declares, "We have given up everything and followed you." Given the confrontational character of so many conversations in the gospels, we might expect Jesus to rebuke his disciple. Many replies come to mind: "You have not yet suffered to the point of shedding blood." (Hebrews); "Let us now begin for we have nothing so far." (Saint Francis of Assisi).

But Jesus affirms the disciple and his sacrifices:
...there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands
for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel
who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:

The word oblation appears in the first line of this morning reading from Sirach; it often sounds during the Eucharist. Bing first defines it as "a thing offered to God or a god." The second definition recalls our Christian heritage: "the presentation of bread and wine to God in the Eucharist."

An oblation is a gift received and returned, received again and returned again. Jesus received life from the Father and gave his life back to the Father. The Father has given us Jesus and we have offered Jesus again to the Father. The Father gave us to Jesus his Immortal Son and Jesus graciously gives us back to the Father. The Father blesses us in Jesus and we bless the Father with, "Hallowed be thy name."

An oblation is a continual giving and receiving. It is an acknowledgement that everything we own is gift, and we have received everything from the Lord.

An oblation is a gift owned by the giver and receiver; it is their bond, their covenant and their communion. Even as the gift is held in their four hands they gaze into each other's eyes.

Saint Peter describes the gift we give to God, "everything." Jesus assures us, you will "receive a hundred times more." In him we offer an acceptable sacrifice.

As we enter the Holy Season of Lent, we contemplate the life God has given us. No matter how dark the hour, the light shines within us in eager anticipation of his Rising.

Monday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 347

To the penitent God provides a way back,
he encourages those who are losing hope
and has chosen for them the lot of truth.

Sin offers the appearances of a way out of our difficulties. Whether the problem is marital conflict, financial straits, terminal illness, unplanned pregnancy, or any of innumerable other problems great and small, sin offers an escape. This is true both for individuals and for groups of people. Always there are "simple, clean and wrong solutions" to thorny problems.

The wrongness of these solutions may, on the surface, appears as nothing more than moral. "What's wrong with it?" people ask. "Prove to me it's wrong, and without any of your religious poppycock!" Pragmatism wants cause and effect; the explanation should be as simple as putting a match to gasoline or a pin to a balloon.

Nor will they listen to threats. They do not suppose the disappearance of family life, the plagues of addiction and suicide, and the election of a narcissist to the highest office in the land are the direct results of widespread, legal abortion. They do not believe God can or should intervene in human affairs, not even to punish wickedness and reward the just.

But for those who are ready to do justice, love the right and walk humbly with our God, the Lord provides a way back. He encourage those who are losing hope.

The way is necessarily through the narrow gate which many avoid. It involves faith and a readiness to walk through a cloud of unknowing when no obvious answer appears. The just suffer affliction like everyone else, but they do not grab at simple, clean and wrong solutions. Nor do they suppose they have all the resources of crafty intelligence to fabricate an ingenious answer to their problems. Rather, they pray, study, discuss and wait for God to show the way.

Trust in the Lord  with all your heart, on your own intelligence rely not. In all your ways be mindful of him, and he will make straight your paths.  Be not wise in your own eyes, fear the Lord and turn away from evil. Proverbs 3:5 

The wise know that God's way do not include immorality. Sin and death offer no solutions.

At one time divorce was supposed to save women from abusive men; abortion was supposed to assure all children would be wanted and loved; narcotics could relieve all pain; laws could prevent crime; and gay marriage would rid the world of sexual perversity. Sin keeps no promises.

God has chosen for us the lot of truth. He continually calls to us, "Here is the way, walk in it."

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 82

"No one can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and mammon.

One of the loveliest and most-cited passages in Matthew's gospel begins with Jesus' warning about two masters. His admonition that we should not worry about food, clothing and shelter and his suggestion that we look at the birds and learn from the flowers follow his teaching, "You cannot serve God and mammon." 

Lent, our season of penance, begins on Wednesday, March 1. The Easter season from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost sets us apart; we are those who serve God. 

But, for those who are anxious about appearances, Jesus assures us, "...I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them." 

It's about faith. Shall I believe the Lord and let him deck me out in Solomon's splendor, or will I conform to the standard fashions. 

(The other day I asked a tattooed fellow, "Can you tell when a person got his tattoo by it's style. Do the fashions change year by year?" He said he doesn't worry about fashion. But I wonder, what could be worse than a tattoo that's no longer fashionable? I guess I'll wait another ten years to get one, to find out what's permanently fashionable. Or is that an oxymoron? 😉) 
All these things the pagans seek.Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness...
The Dominant Culture make jokes about political correctness and fashion police; but, in fact, they live in dread of being seen as odd or different. Their cult of individuality, especially, marks them for conformity. The very effort to stand out is chained to the impulse to be like everyone else. 

The Lord has told us in many ways, we should be different: 
(He) gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good.
Our willingness to remain in marriage and work out our difficulties time after time; to welcome the unexpected pregnancy; to care for the sick until natural death; to live with our disabilities -- physical, mental and spiritual -- and count them as blessings; to worship God in good times and bad; and to trust in God's Providence as birds of the air and flowers in the field: these mark us as a people who belong to God. 

Because we are different, we make a difference. 

Saturday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 346

Today's Alleluia offers a meeting place between our first reading, which concerns our place in creation, and the gospel, about Jesus' encounter with children: 
Blessed are you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth;you have revealed to little ones the mysteries of the Kingdom.
 The author of Ecclesiasticus, Jesus ben Sirach, says of our place in God's creation, 
Limited days of life he gives him, with power over all things else on earth. He puts the fear of him in all flesh, and gives him rule over beasts and birds.
The human race is, in effect, god of the universe and subject only to the Lord of Creation. The animals fear us as we should fear God.  The woods of Mount Saint Francis might be overcrowded with deer; there may be coyotes and groundhogs out there; and perhaps some pumas and boars. But during my photographic rambles, I see only a few squirrels and they keep a wary eye on me. All flesh are in fear of me, it seems; and as proprietor of this land I rule over them. 
He put the fear of himself upon their hearts, 
and showed them his mighty works, 
That they might glory in the wonder of his deeds 
and praise his holy name.
Perhaps this fear of the Lord explains why I met such a fearful glance recently in the VA hospital. I knew immediately by his eyes he was estranged from the Church. Of course I knew it also by his suicidal ideation and alcoholism. He watched me warily, like a squirrel although he could not disappear behind the bole of a tree. He seemed to fear more than my greeting or my teaching; he feared a mighty work and wondrous deed. I handed his girlfriend a brochure for the chaplaincy and invited them to watch the televised hospital Mass. I planted a seed; someone else might harvest the grain. 

The only wonderful works I perform are Anointing the Sick, Absolution and Eucharist. These are astonishing displays of power which I administrate whenever I am directed by the Spirit to do so. They go largely unnoticed by the cacophonous hubbub of conversations and nursing ministrations that go on around me. Sometimes I can hardly hear my own words; I have to hang on to the recitation of prayers like a water skier to his towrope. 
An everlasting covenant he has made with them, his justice and his judgments he has revealed to them. His majestic glory their eyes beheld, his glorious voice their ears heard.
I wonder how many people actually noticed that Jesus was being crucified on that busy Friday before the major feast of Passover. Crucifixion was hardly unusual; Romans did it all the time to their unfortunate subjects. Perhaps the Evangelists exaggerated the reactions of the bystanders and the elemental earth, sun and moon to draw our attention to what happened that day. Certainly Jesus' disciples were keenly aware of the tragedy but the world had other business to attend. Perhaps only his disciples beheld his majestic glory or heard his glorious voice
For the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Friday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 345

A kind mouth multiplies friends and appeases enemies,
and gracious lips prompt friendly greetings.
Let your acquaintances be many,
but one in a thousand your confidant.

The beautiful word friend became a verb and took on an entirely different meaning when Facebook went on line several years ago. I suppose a generation of children is growing up thinking friends are people they “meet” on line in a virtual world of bits, bytes, zeroes and ones.
As different as their world might be, this generation would do well to read and discuss Jesus ben Sirach’s advice. If friend still means someone you can trust with personal information, someone who will not borrow your credit card, molest your fiancé, spouse or children, or ask you to bail him out of jail, everyone should have one.

Christian friendship begins with Jesus’ words,
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another.

People, in the Facebook universe, are monads incapable of union and their friendships are little more than amorous glances between passing strangers. Friends in such relationships are assured the universe will not collapse when they part; their love never mattered in the first place. In the Facebook world the only reality is the bottom line. 

Friendship among the disciples of Jesus begins with his commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Our communion is unto death. We receive one another as gifts from God, much as the Father gives us to Jesus and he, in turn, receives us as gifts from Jesus. Even as we offer the oblation of the Eucharist, Jesus offers us as an oblation to the Father. An oblation is a gift received; and then returned to the giver; and returned again to the receiver. It is a bond uniting both in intense, joyous, sacrificial love. Our covenant in God can no more be unfriended than marriage can be dissolved. 

Friendship as known to the Author of Ecclesiasticus finds its fulfillment in the discipleship of Jesus. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We don’t make friends; we offer and receive friendship with a grateful heart and a humble awareness of our unworthiness.

Memorial of Saint Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr

Lectionary: 344

Say not: "I have sinned, yet what has befallen me?"
for the Most High bides his time.
Of forgiveness be not overconfident,
adding sin upon sin.
Say not: "Great is his mercy;
my many sins he will forgive."
For mercy and anger alike are with him;
upon the wicked alights his wrath.
Delay not your conversion to the LORD,
put it not off from day to day.

Perhaps those who make the kind of remarks that the Author of Ecclesiasticus has cited are not refusing grace; perhaps they just don’t believe what their religion tells them.
It’s not, “Because God is good he’ll save me tomorrow,” but “If God is good he’ll save me tomorrow.” and “…if God is not good, I’ve not wasted anything on religion.” Perhaps that’s why so many people have shrugged off their Christian and Catholic faith.

At least part of the problem is our outlandish religion. We’re asking people to believe a human being, who lived and died a long time ago in a very distant part of the world. They should believe that he: 1) is the Son of God; 2) died for our salvation, 3) was raised on Easter Sunday, 4) established a community to keep his memory until the end of time; and 5) will come again to gather his disciples to himself.  That's a lot to ask. 

What they don't see is the astonishing beauty of our faith. For whatever reason, their hearts are not moved by the infant who lies in a manger because there was no room in the inn. They might see the pathos but miss the perfect beauty of it. They might recognize the Holy Family as disinherited refugees but not comprehend Blessed are the meek who will inherit the land, and how just and right and merciful that is. They are not hungry for his flesh or thirsty for his blood or fascinated by the wounds which glow like precious gems to the eyes of faith. 

I know of no way to open their eyes except to pray that my own eyes are open to such beauty, and that my face might shine with reflected glory. Perhaps they will turn and look in the same direction as I am looking, and be fascinated, astonished and delighted as I have been. 

Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, Apostle

Tend the flock of God in your midst,
overseeing not by constraint but willingly,
as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly.

Today we celebrate the authority Jesus gave to Saint Peter, the leader and spokesman of his disciples. Peter’s “chair” is similar to the “chair” that is erected at many universities, a sign of permanence, authority and great dignity.

Peter’s rank among the disciples reminds us that Jesus was not just one of the fellows. He wasn’t exactly a friend among friends, although he says in the Gospel of Saint John, “I call you friends.” In the synoptic gospels we find an aura of authority around him. He walks ahead of the group, not with them. They approach him first and then ask questions. This authority is no surprise to the Evangelists though it may surprise the American reader; they knew rabbis did not chum around with their disciples.

Peter was selected to mediate between Jesus and the disciples, and to speak for them. For that reason, his denial of Jesus on the night before he died was all the more painful for everyone. The breach had to be closed afterward, when the Risen Lord asked three times, “Do you love me?” Peter, humiliated by the relentless questioning finally wept, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
The first pope’s denial of the Lord and subsequent reconciliation must remind us of our own sin. As odd as it may sound, there are people who expect the Christian churches and their members to be without sin. They should evince no trace of racism, lust, greed or dishonesty. They should neither flaunt their virtue nor hide their shortcomings. They should have no shortcomings to hide!

Our patent infidelity provides an excuse for those who left the church and an alibi for the invited who decline. But they also create an opening to celebrate God’s mercy. “If God can forgive me, he can forgive anyone.” The astonishing, appalling dimensions of our sins – their sheer enormity – reveal God’s tender mercy brilliantly.

We’re like children on the beach, furiously digging holes that might swallow us alive. The tide comes in; the tide washes out; the holes of sin have disappeared, as if they never were. Such is God’s mercy.

Jesus, for his own inscrutable reasons, prefers to work with sinners. He chooses the weak of the earth to reveal his strength; the foolish, to reveal his wisdom; and the sinful, to display his -- necessarily -- infinite mercy. He chose Peter, you and me. 

Tuesday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 342

You who fear the LORD, wait for his mercy,
turn not away lest you fall.
You who fear the LORD, trust him,
and your reward will not be lost.
You who fear the LORD, hope for good things,
for lasting joy and mercy.
You who fear the LORD, love him,
and your hearts will be enlightened.

The Catholic Church today finds itself in inevitable and necessary conflicts with the Dominant Culture. In the name of compassion, the world promotes all kinds of attacks against human life, from abortion and human chimeras to euthanasia. Catholics cannot be silent about these dreadful practices, nor can we expect to stop the momentum behind them.

Many women especially feel impelled to abort their unborn children. Without adequate financial, social or personal resources they have nowhere to turn. In many cases they have no experience of church or faith. If they have some sentimental feeling about motherhood, similar to those they felt about sex and relationships, their fantasies of motherhood are readily swept aside by overwhelming fears.

Vulnerable, expectant mothers cannot be expected have their babies and rely on the Lord's Providential Mercy if they have neither heard the Gospel nor met a Christian who demonstrates such faith. Their ethical values can only be the standards of the Dominant Culture, fearful, individualistic and brutally utilitarian.

In today's first reading, the wise man Sirach addresses "you who fear the Lord." He urges us to "wait for his mercy; trust him; hope for good things; love him" and so forth. He addresses his congregation, and insists that they must be a holy people.
Trust God and God will help you;
trust in him, and he will direct your way;
keep his fear and grow old therein.
Christian life is built on the assurance that God is very near, "nearer than I am to myself." But his love is not invasive to those who love him; it is welcome. We understand that God cares about us. He has said and we have heard, "I will be your God and you shall be my people." God's love directs our life. There is nothing human which is outside of God's purview. We delight in this and would have it no other way.

Many Catholics and Christians share generously with expectant mothers even as they invite them to rely on God. Our witness must be more than an invitation to Church, it must be an actual sharing of sparse commodities. We challenge the Dominant Culture not because we disagree with their compassionate concerns but because we trust in God's providential care; we have found mercy and we show mercy. Our fearless freedom invites others to come worship the Lord.

Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 341

He asked them, "What are you arguing about with them?"

As Jesus, still glowing with the exhilaration of transfiguration, came down the mountain he found his disciples locked in heated conversation with scribes, while an expectant crowd watched and a single man agonized about his tormented son. 

The Savior asked, "What are you arguing about with them?" and, predictably, they didn't answer. It had something to do with the father and his boy. We are not told the sides of the debate. It didn't matter. Neither the scribes nor Jesus' disciples could help the child and his father, so they just argued about it. Perhaps they argued about who is to blame for demonic possession, or who is to blame for their helplessness. 

With the impulsive boy about to throw himself again into water or flames this is no time for argument. This is time for action, which is what Jesus does. 

Our reading from the Book of the Wise Man Sirach, begins with "All wisdom comes from the LORD and with him it remains forever, and is before all." 

If we understand "wisdom" as a kind of knowledge dissociated from action, as a set of ideas and opinions and doctrines, we know nothing. If we suppose we can argue about good ideas and bad, and then go home again to watch television, we're missing the point altogether. Knowledge wants action and God's wisdom acts. 

As I understand the Hebrew concept of wisdom includes skill. There are wise teachers of proverbs and wise carpenters; the word is the same. Jesus the wise man knows how to heal the boy and uses his wisdom immediately.  

I confess, I do not know what to do. When I was a pastor in Jennings, Louisiana I talked with other pastors about the epidemic of drug abuse and alcoholism. We didn't know what to do. One Saturday morning we organized a protest march and walked from the black end of town to the white, highlighting the fact that it was not a racial issue. Politicians and other leaders joined us, along with a respectable number of black and white citizens. The junkies and pushers were still abed when we finished our march and went home for lunch. 

In the VA I meet Veterans caught up in chemical addiction and discuss "spirituality" with them. I hope they meet in this conversation and the program a healing fellowship that can actually set them free. They may join us or die, but no one can decide for them. 

Arguments cannot save us. Arguments about abortion, suicide, drug addiction, Trump or the rights of minorities cannot save us. We must finally turn to Jesus and say, "I do believe, help my unbelief!"

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 79

The LORD said to Moses,
"Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

"You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD."

The Book of Leviticus is called "the holiness code" because in it we find specific instruction about how we should be -- that is, "holy" -- and how we should act, without hatred toward anyone. 

"Acting without hatred toward anyone" might go without saying. But it needs to be said -- often. Or perhaps I should say, "I need to hear this often." Especially the part about reproving your fellow citizen. 

I notice the Lord doesn't say, "Thou shalt not reprove your fellow citizen." Nor does He say, "Rather than reprove your fellow citizen, avoid him at all costs." Disowning, distancing, divorcing or abandoning your fellow citizen is not an option. Rather, "do not incur sin" when you have to reprove someone. 

The Gospel of Saint Matthew, the most legalistic of the four gospels, allows excommunication only as a last resort, as a kind of tough love for bringing a beloved brother or sister back into the fold. Perhaps, when the offending party sees we cannot and will not abide his behavior, he will be shocked into recognizing how offensive it is. But we want to avoid that last resort whenever possible. 

There can be no community or fellowship that does not have to occasionally reprove a member. I think of it with the metaphor of a tree. Plant a certain tree in the middle of a dense forest and it will grow tall and narrow, pushing itself up through the other trees and into the sky. Plant the same tree in the middle of an open field, it will spread out as far as it wants, with no interference from other trees. 

People do that. I do that. In a vacuum of companionship I take as much space as I want. But with others around me, I observe the boundaries of other people and stay within my own. If I fail to notice someone's boundaries, I may overstep mine and be reproved. If, for some bizarre reason, I think I am superior to another person -- due to my race, religion, gender, pay  grade, or standing in the community -- I may need a severe rebuke and a taste of humiliation to pull back to my own legitimate space. But if no one says anything to me when I persistently overstep my rightful zone, whose fault is that? 

I played a game of Risk one time with a classmate's brothers and sisters. I ran them all off the board in no time. The next day my friend, who had not played the game, told me none of his family would challenge "the priest." I had no idea, but I was embarrassed. 

In a worse scenario, I may belong to a community that thinks I deserve a superior position, and even that I have the right to overstep my boundaries. In such a predicament, we will be blessed if our "inferiors" rebel against our insufferable attitudes and demand their rights. In the worst-case, we will incur the wrath of a Just and Mighty God. 

The holiness code urges us to reprove our fellow citizens without incurring sin. Insults, name-calling, exaggeration, insinuation and so forth do not contribute to peace; they only make matters worse. Often, we have to wait for the right moment. There's no point in berating an inebriated alcoholic; he won't even remember the exchange. Rather, we wait, pray and ask God to give us the right words and provide the right opportunity for his healing, merciful, rectifying grace to flood our fellowship. 

Saturday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Blessed Virgin Mary, Pillar of Strength

Lectionary: 340

Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. Because of it the ancients were well attested. By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of God, so that what is visible came into being through the invisible.

Our first readings during the weekdays of this  Ordinary Time of Year have been tracing the history of "the ancients," from Adam to Noah. And so today's first reading from the Letter to the Hebrews gives us the Christian summation of what we've heard so far: Abel offered an acceptable sacrifice; Enoch pleased God; and Noah reverently built an ark for the salvation of his household. They were people of faith. On Monday we'll begin another set of readings from the Book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus

Our Author describes faith as the "realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen." During that first century of the Christian era, there was no question about the existence of God. Some might have claimed allegiance to many gods, others picked out one of the gods for special devotion, while Jews insisted there is only one God and that is Our God. 

In any case, there was no doubt among the many nations of the Roman Empire about the existence of God(s). Atheism would not appear until the seventeenth century; when philosophers had dismissed, and theologians had neglected, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. 

So our Divine Author does not describe faith as a clinging confidence in the One God who has revealed himself in Jewish history and the Person of Jesus, that God who thunders, "I will be your God and you shall be my people!" As far as I know, from my little knowledge of philosophy, this notion of faith as a "personal relationship with Jesus" did not appear before the Methodist movement and the Great Awakenings in America. 

Faith: it's not about what you know but who you know

Many people still like to point to our well-ordered universe as proof -- or at least a demonstration -- of God's existence, that God who is all-powerful and certainly able to design, create and maintain an infinitely complex universe such as our own. With wonder and joy they ask, "What are the odds of such a phenomenon just happening?" It's a fun argument, I think, but not persuasive. Even if this wonderful God made the Universe, does he know or care about me? 

The persuasion to believe has to touch not the mind but the frightened, bewildered human heart. It must come through personal witness. Reasoned arguments mean nothing to the fearful. 

I came to faith when I met people who were happy and coping well enough in a chaotic world. I said to myself, "Their God is working for them; mine is not working for me." And then I listened to their testimony. In some ways we worshiped the same god, the name was the same. In some cases we attended the same church! 

But I had to hear their stories and accept their credibility before I would ask "Our God" to take my hand and lead me out of confusion. Eventually I would believe that Jesus of Nazareth deserved my complete confidence. Even on the cross he did not despair of the Father's fidelity; and that fidelity was proven in the Resurrection. His enemies regarded him as a fool but I have seen his foolishness was wiser than human wisdom. 

This man is worthy of my complete confidence, even of my adoration as the One True God. 

Friday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 339
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the Gospel will save it
“…the essential conditions of freedom are social and the simplest answer to the question, “Why cannot I do as I please?” is “Because other people won’t let me.”
There is a second corollary of our interdependence which is less widely recognized, and which seems to me the most important of all. No man can compass his own freedom for himself. He must accept it as a free gift from others, and if they will not give it to him he cannot have it. This is the law of freedom. Against it our fear and our pride beat themselves in vain rebellion. If we struggle to achieve our own private freedom we merely frustrate ourselves and destroy its possibility; for we cannot free ourselves from our dependence upon our fellows. That this is not so is one of the great illusions of a sophisticated society. When we profess our faith in freedom we often mean only that we want to be free. What honor is there in such a miserable faith? Which of us would not like to do as he pleases – if only he could escape the consequences? To believe in freedom, in any sense worthy of consideration, is to believe in setting other people free. This is to some extent within our power, and it is the greatest service we can render; even if it must be, at  times, by the sacrifice of our own. In giving freedom to others we have a right  to hope that they in turn will have the grace and gratitude to give us ours. But of this we can have no guarantee. (The Conditions of Freedom John Macmurray, Humanity Books, 1949)
At the beginning of the Atomic Age, following the collapse of Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan and the realization the Earth could no longer abide nationalism for the world had become a single community bound together in war and peace, Professor Macmurray addressed the problem of freedom.
He chided his audience in a lecture, “We flatter ourselves too much when we imagine that we love freedom and strive wholeheartedly towards freedom. On the contrary, there are few things we fear so much…. For to act freely is to take a decision and accept the consequences. The free man is the man who takes responsibility for his own life before God and his fellows. Is it any wonder that, when we are faced with the challenge of freedom, our fear is usually more than a match for its attractiveness; and that we seek for the most part to escape the demand that it makes upon us?”
Macmurray refused to see the human being as an isolated individual. That charming romance was unrealistic; founded in the principles of Enlightened Idealism rather than the real experience of ordinary human life. We’re all in this together and the one who would escape human fellowship betrays his own and our human nature.
Macmurray, who is considered a “religious philosopher” by today’s atheistic standards, pondered Jesus’ teaching about the cross. Christians have puzzled over, discussed and argued with Jesus’ cross since the day he pronounced these words. What does it mean to be free and how can crucifixion represent true and absolute freedom?

We can invite but we cannot persuade the skeptics and the fearful. When they come with us they realize "whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it."

Thursday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 338

And he asked them, 
"But who do you say that I am?"
Peter said to him in reply,
"You are the Christ."

When I took a karate class some years ago they gave me a white belt to hold my judogi together, but I worked alongside black belts. They never scoffed at my clumsiness; they were entirely focused on their own technique. Karate is essentially a spiritual exercise; it requires continual attention to the basics of posture and balance.
Faith also demands that we continually answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” It is not enough to say, “I came to the Lord forty years ago.” 

A lot can happen in forty years. What often happens is disappointment with the Church. Christians are delighted to know the Lord Jesus but often meet confusion, frustration and disenchantment upon meeting their fellow worshipers in the congregation. As they contribute significant time, talent and treasure to the church they want to know their presence makes a difference.  When the initial enthusiasm wears off many decide they can love Jesus just as easily in the confines of their own home. Their Lone Ranger philosophy of individualism reassures them this is the way to go.
Had they read the New Testament more closely they might not have pulled out so quickly:
Beloved, I am writing no new commandment to you but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. And yet I do write a new commandment to you, which holds true in him and among you for the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light, yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall. Whoever hates his brother is in darkness; he walks in darkness and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
And, yes, shunning the church because you don’t like someone is the same thing as hate. That’s a strong word and we don’t like to use it often but using another word does not  erase its devastating effects. Dropping out of the church is the same as denying Jesus. If the Body of Christ is only people who like each other it will have all the corporeality of a cloud. We are those who disagree, quarrel, dislike, reconcile and atone for our divisiveness.

I have a simple formula for this: “You cannot love Jesus unless you love his Church. You cannot love his Church unless you really love Jesus.”  Church membership is the acid test of faith; it exposes the shallowness of our faith, a truth we would politely avoid. If your faith in Jesus is lukewarm your tolerance for other Christians will be tepid at best.

But the Church of Reconciled Sinners, surviving the crucible, draws us more deeply in love with the One who has saved us and more deeply in gratitude for these wonderful people.

Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 337

In the evening the dove came back to him,
and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf!

We recognize Noah’s dove with its olive leaf as symbol of peace. News media routinely sort politicians into hawks and doves; identifying the warlike and the irenic. 

The olive leaf in this verse -- which we usually call an olive branch -- represents the foundation of civilized life in the ancient world. The Mediterranean cook began every meal with olive oil; she could hardly imagine eating without it. When the jug of oil went empty, the people went hungry. The oil was used for food in cookery, for medicinal massage, and for religious rituals. Priests, prophets and kings were anointed with olive oil. This was their chrism, which made them God's chosen, which is variously translated as messiah, Christ, or elect. The oily earthiness represents the soil from which we’re taken.

The olive tree is incredibly sturdy; an orchard can be fruitful after hundreds of years of careful husbandry. but an orchard was more than wealth; it belonged to a family that tended it for many generations. Every time the farmer pruned his trees he reenacted the work of his ancestors. His life, livelihood and identity were invested in the soil, air and trees of the family orchard.

But the olive tree – even a thousand year old tree -- is vulnerable to anyone with an ax. By destroying olive orchards, an army exterminates its enemy and prevents them from ever recovering. Even a defeated army, before retreating, can accomplish that in a matter of hours. 

The “gospel” appears in the “plucked-off olive leaf.” Despite the catastrophic flood, the olive trees survived. God's wrath against sinful humanity has not completely destroyed the vitality, resourcefulness and blessings of the past. 

Like the leather skins given to Adam and Eve and the tattoo that protected Cain from assault, the olive leaf is an assurance of God’s continuing affection after the disaster. This token is a long way from the friendship granted to Abraham, the intimacy with Moses, and the shield of protection around King David; and it pales beside the presence of Jesus who is “the way, the truth and the life!” but the olive leaf is an assurance of God’s abiding favor given to all Earth's inhabitants, the descendants of Noah.

Memorial of Saints Cyril, Monk, and Methodius, Bishop

Lectionary: 336

When the LORD saw how great was man's wickedness on earth, and how no desire that his heart conceived was ever anything but evil, he regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was grieved.

Although we know the end of this story, we should ponder its beginning. God regretted that he had made man on the earth and his heart was grieved.
There are many moments when troubles mount and hope seems faint and we would Amen this sorry assessment. But this story describes a distant, all-powerful deity who has experimented with a creature made in his own image and likeness and been disappointed. He dwells, like many of us, above the fray and in relative comfort. From that distance it’s not hard to throw up one’s hands and say, “To hell with it.”
During the first chapters of Genesis we hear the history of sin, from Adam to the Tower of Babel. Despite God’s interventions – his counsel to Adam and Cain and his purging the land by flood – sin continues unabated. Confusing the languages of Babel wasn’t even intended to improve matters, though it might have made the situation less bad. Clearly the strategy of distant observation with occasional, unwelcome catastrophes has failed.
Human sin demands divine investment and intervention. Grace must do more than occasionally meddle in human affairs. We need God’s abiding presence and a very personal, direct relationship with God. That story will begin with Abraham, in chapter 12.
It is easy to watch television or scan the Internet and pronounce judgment on other people’s affairs. “There oughta be a law!” we say, or “How can people act like that? Have they no morals?” It’s not so easy to pronounce judgment when we’re actually involved.
The Lord will step into human history when he befriends Abraham. His old ways of ruthless punishment persist, apparently over Abraham’s objections, when he rains burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah. As Abraham watched the mushroom cloud billowing over the “cities of the plain” we can imagine his resolution to prevent its happening again, if at all possible.
The challenge of our time is to remain engaged. Pope Francis calls this engagement "mercy." Even terrorism – as dreadful and senseless as it is – reminds us there is no escaping our duty of merciful participation. The threat that an American shooter or Arab jihadist might invade our lives looms over our cell phones, personal computers and home entertainment systems. There are no “green zones” like the failed experiment in Baghdad.  
Genesis 1-11 tells us God could not keep a safe distance from human affairs if he wanted to hear “Hallowed Be Thy Name.” The New Testament tells us how God surrendered entirely to that impulse of love. The Mass tells us, “Go in peace,” not to return to our comfort zones but to bring peace to this uncertain, perilous world we call home.

Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 335

So the LORD said to Cain:
"Why are you so resentful and crestfallen.
If you do well, you can hold up your head;
but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door:
his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master."

We have seen the “demon lurking at the door” in the serpent who spoke to Eve. Now, as the Lord speaks to Cain, many years after the expulsion from Eden, God urges the crestfallen older brother to “master” the urge.

The young man has become obsessed with resentment toward his brother Abel, who is entirely innocent of blame. The younger boy offers sheep in sacrifice and God accepts the sacrifice. Does he even know of Cain’s frustration? We can suppose by his willingness to go with Cain into the field that he has no reason to fear.

A New Yorker article told of a boy who, watching his grandfather sleep, began to think about shooting him. He had no reason to do so; they were a reasonably happy family; they enjoyed hunting together. But he also had nothing else to think about. His parents had been divorced a while. He had recently broke up with a girlfriend, something normal kids do all the time. He didn’t like to think about that. As the evening wore into night and toward the morning the restless teen thought more and more about shooting the sleeper. If he at any point thought, “This is ridiculous; I don’t want to kill my grandfather.” he brushed that thought aside in favor of the thrill that murder might afford. Finally he got up, took a pistol from the gun case and shot the 60 year old man in the head.

He told the arresting officer it was the most exciting thing he’d ever done in his life. His bewildered father still visits the prison where his son will live out his youth.

Cain seems to be possessed of the same evil fantasy. He has surrendered his soul to the intoxication of a vicious thought. God warns him of the danger; he insists, “You can master this demon.” but Cain refuses to consider it.

The story of Cain and Abel reminds us of the intentionality of sin.  Although the individual may think he has no control, that he is powerless, he is no less responsible for what he does.

One of the strengths of Alcoholics Anonymous is its understanding of this dilemma. Although alcoholism is a disease the sick one is entirely responsible for his disease, his behavior, its consequences and his recovery.

One of the weaknesses of Alcoholics Anonymous has been the success of this formula. Some are so persuaded that they are sick they refuse to pursue recovery.

Cain would have mastered the impulse to kill his brother had he turned his “life and will over to the care of God.” Adam and Eve would have walked away from the Forbidden Tree with its insinuating serpent had they clung to their love of God.

Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in faith, knowing that your fellow believers throughout the world undergo the same sufferings. I Peter 5:8

Our faith requires us to master our thoughts. We are not permitted to indulge in resentment, regret, lust, envy or avarice. In thought, word and deed, at every moment of every day, we are subject to Christ.