Thursday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

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.

Have you noticed how hard it is to start a new habit? And how easy it is to start a bad one? Have you noticed how hard it is to kick a bad habit, and how easy it is to forget a good one?
I think that sad predicament is one facet of concupiscence. We are fascinated by evil, and less interested in virtue. Why that should be I do not know. It doesn't matter. There it is. Deal with it.
I meet this mystery almost daily in the VA as Veterans tell me they will certainly quit smoking now. Dyspnea of even a few minutes is distressing; when it goes on for hours it's terrifying. Gasping for breath, half-blind with asphyxiation, even the inveterate smoker swears off the habit with a mighty oath. After three days in the hospital they often boast they've been three days without a cigarette. "I'll never smoke again!" Until they leave the hospital. Before the day is over they've picked it up again.
A habit is developed and maintained with every repetition. You cannot say, "I'll quit tomorrow!" as you light up today. It doesn't work that way.
Jesus ben Sirach in the Book of Ecclesiasticus urges his readers, "Delay not your conversion to the Lord; put it not off from day to day."
Every repetition of a habit is done in the immediate now and reinforces the habit. Tomorrow is this moment. Avoiding God's benevolent kindness, ignoring his presence and choosing one's desires over God's will in this moment is decisive.
That's not to say I should be praying all the time. Our life must be a balance of work and prayer, eating, exercise, resting, recreation and study, conversation and contemplation. Christians do all this in God's immediate presence. Just as a devoted husband abides in the presence of his wife even if she is on the other side of the globe, so do we live with the awareness of God's mercy. That awareness governs our decisions in every moment, including the decisions to practice good habits and forget the bad ones.
Many Americans have been fascinated by eastern spirituality and have studied yoga awareness. It's great stuff. A Christian's awareness begins with the assurance of God's personal presence. We "fear" offending God's goodness in the same way that we stand up when a senator, judge or bishop enters the room. It is an honor to be in such august presence. That awareness of God's majesty governs the life of grace; it leads away from the tragedy of bad habits.

Wednesday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.

Today's gospel follows immediately after Jesus' second prediction of his passion and death, and his teaching,
“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.”
It precedes a dreadful curse:
"Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe [in me] to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea."
The Christian disciple has been handed a welder's torch with a warning to use it carefully. If you've ever watched a professional use one of these devices you know the holy dread that should come with them.
No sooner had the Reformer Martin Luther declared his revulsion at the hypocritical ways of the Roman Catholic Church than a peasant rebellion scorched the countryside. I don't blame him. The poor farmers reacted against centuries of violent abuse. But the story reminds me of the caution we must exercise with the freedom that Luther celebrated. The former Augustinian would not -- and finally could not -- constrain the followers who exercised their own brand of freedom.
In today's gospel the disciples of Jesus warn him of an apparent problem but he refuses to act upon their concern. He seems more amused than alarmed that strangers are healing in his name. 
He may be more concerned about his disciples and their proprietary attitude toward him. As those who live in his daily company, they might consider themselves the experts on what Jesus does, thinks, feels and represents. No one can speak for Jesus but them!
On the one hand, Catholics have our doctrine of infallibility. With all due respect to the expertise of secular historians, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and novelists, the true interpretation of the scriptures must be shaped by the Holy Spirit. They may have interesting and helpful insights but their suggestions must be tested by the inspired tradition, which we call Magisterium.
On the other hand, we do not own the Gospel. We hope we are owned by it and always subject to it. As my Baptist friend used to say, "If God needs me to defend him, we're in very deep trouble!"
If Jesus was amused by apparent competition, we might take the same bemused attitude. As the Jewish sage Gamaliel said (and was quoted in the Acts of the Apostles),
"For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.

We watch. We pray. We hope God will manage forces and powers far beyond our comprehension.

Tuesday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

...when you come to serve the LORD,
stand in justice and fear,
prepare yourself for trials.
Be sincere of heart and steadfast,
incline your ear and receive the word of understanding,
undisturbed in time of adversity.

We often celebrate the gift of freedom. Of the three glorious blessings of the French Revolution -- Liberté, égalité, fraternité -- Americans talk most about liberty. With our automobiles, open highways and guns we live the dream of going where we want to go and doing what we want to do.
Egalité places second; and fraternité, a distant third. We really don't mind that there are unequal classes among us, so long as they live in a different location, location, location. Some are more equal than others. As to fraternity: there are some people we'd rather not include.

We love the blessing of freedom but don't often ponder its curse. We feel the pain when others take unwarranted liberties. Because freedom is bestowed upon every person and people act by their own principles, I often feel that someone has invaded my space. They might not have noticed. They have different ideas about the territory we share and how it should be divvied out. I might carry my injury and its resentment for many years because someone took something that I thought belonged to me.
Some people will blame God for their injuries. And why not? It was God who gave us the freedom to take from one another. And, usually, if we're waiting for God to punish the invading perpetrator, we wait an awfully long time. Freedom is not always fun. Sometime it's bitter.
Some people think freedom is "the right to be let alone." They would live in unclaimed, un-taxed, un-policed flood plains. "Oh give me land, lots of land with a starry sky above. Don't fence me in!" 
But hermits usually return to civilization to spend their last days in a nursing home at taxpayer expense. I see them arriving in the hospital, exhausted, filthy, malnourished and dehydrated.This is no one's vision of freedom. 
Real freedom means finding a place and role in society where we can participate fully. We give what we can and receive what we need, and enjoy the blessings and privileges of human community. It takes skill, dedication and courage. 
Which brings us back to Jesus ben Sirach's teaching, "when you come to serve the LORD, stand in justice and fear, prepare yourself for trials." 
Nowhere does the Bible say it's easy to live a good life. Rather, the Word of God admonishes us to expect to be tested to the limits of endurance and beyond, and to remain faithful through it all. Because we have embraced the curse of freedom, we can enjoy its gift.

Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

To whom has wisdom's root been revealed?
Who knows her subtleties?
To whom has the discipline of wisdom been revealed?
And who has understood the multiplicity of her ways ?
There is but one, wise and truly awe-inspiring,
seated upon his throne:
There is but one, Most High

I recently watched a TED talk by a journalist on women's sexuality. The young writer mocked the doctors and professors of 19th and 20th medicine who examined women's bodies and discussed women's medical issues without asking women about their lore, knowledge or experience. If they permitted women to study and practice medicine it was only with reluctance.
There was a time, in the middle ages, when scholars admired the wisdom of the ancients. They fell all over themselves praising ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and poets. More recently, scholars dismiss the insights and wisdom of dead, white men. Even expert knowledge of the 20th century is rapidly disappearing in the rear view mirror. Their world was so small, how could they expect to know anything?
With the ever-expanding, ever-accelerating Internet we find ourselves mired in information, swamped in unprocessed data. For every truth there is a counter-truth; for every argument, a disagreement. Whatever I know today I will doubt tomorrow, and repudiate next week.
Oddly, Jesus ben Sirach, the Jewish scholar who compiled and authored Ecclesiasticus, understood our dilemma in the second century before Christ. But he wasn't distressed by it. His faith assured him that, if no one...
...has understood the multiplicity of (wisdom's) ways...
there is... one, wise and truly awe-inspiring,
seated upon his throne:
There is but one, Most High....
Sirach's love and frank adoration of the Most High God inoculated him from the pride of new knowledge. He could admire his ancestors and their acumen without supposing that his new insights proved his superiority over them. If the times were changing, as they always are, he could delight in new information and appreciate ancient lore. For always, just above him -- so near they were almost visible -- were the throne of the Most High God and His consort, Lady Wisdom.
Jesus ben Sirach understood wisdom as a gift of God. His attitude prevailed well into the Middle Ages when doctors and teachers were not permitted to sell their knowledge. How could you market God's free gift? Scholars relied upon wealthy patrons and student donations and didn't expect to get wealthy. The last shreds of that reluctance disappeared only recently as lawyers began to advertise their eager availability.
We do well to practice Sirach's faith in God as we are overwhelmed with information and assailed by experts. Recently we have seen an outbreak of measles, a disease that was nearly extinct. Conscientious parents fell prey to unscrupulous bloggers whose only expertise were the ability to exploit naivete. They would not have their children inoculated. The bloggers profited with "clickbait." What did their sponsors care if children died? "Am I my brother's keeper?" they asked. They were getting rich and, as Gordon Gekko said, "Greed is good."
The Wisdom writers of the Old and New Testaments did not think ignorance is bliss. They equated foolishness with sin and wisdom with virtue. Certainly, as the measles epidemic demonstrates, there are tragic consequences for listening to unwise advice. The right choice is not just a matter of opinion.
There is a God who governs us with Wisdom. We should seek his guidance.

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 81

To you who hear I say,
love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

During time of war religions teach us to defend the nation and despise the enemy. Our enemies would raze our schools, churches and homes. They would destroy our roads and bridges, sewers, water mains and power grids. They would flatten our cities, pollute our rivers and poison our farms. They would kill our spouses, children and elderly. They would enslave us, destroying our freedom and security. Their values are diabolical; their intent is mischief.
We will not brook doubt about our righteousness. We cannot afford any hesitation about our cause.  Even doubt about our strategy for victory is suspicious. We should uproot any potential sympathy for the enemy.
The wiser might admit the enemy is clever, perhaps even intelligent. They will urge us to deal shrewdly with our foes. But that admission may be like the camel's nose under the wall of the tent; the rest of him is coming in. Once we admit that the enemy is intelligent, we might admit that some of them have spouses and children. Some are poor people forced into the military and only trying to make it. Many of them only want peace and security, even if they must live under tyranny. They're like us.
Once we've admitted the enemy is like us, we may start to remember we didn't always hate the Chinese, North Koreans, Japanese, Germans or British. We share history with our enemies.
If the war continues more than a few weeks some of the news will be very disturbing. Some of our military act dishonorably. Some have pillaged, raped and slaughtered the defenseless. And some of our heroes have befriended the enemy. Soldiers far from home found girlfriends in occupied territory, and have children by them. The children could be American citizens; they're grandparents live next door!
A prolonged war becomes like marriage; once we're into it it's not easy to get out. The business that was suppose to be over in a few days stretches into months, years and decades. And we're not even sure who the enemy is anymore, much less what we're fighting for.

The religion that Jesus teaches always had its shortcomings. Sometimes his Christianity doesn't act like a religion. It doesn't hate the enemy; it reminds us that our motives are not pure. It reminds us of the future; sooner or later we will need our enemies and will make peace with them. His Spirit counsels temperance even when we combat evil.
The renegade David had an eye to the future as he dealt with his mortal foe, King Saul. If he would be king he should not murder the present king, especially in cold blood in the middle of the night. It sets a bad precedent. Many -- perhaps most -- kings, tyrants and dictators die by violence. King David died of old age in his own bed, surrounded by family and friends.

Jesus' teaching sounds radical. To some it's ridiculous. But it's really common sense. If we think about the past and the future and not just the emotions of the moment, we will try to contain the harm the enemy does as we restrain our own worst impulses. And always, with respect for "They are us."

Memorial of Saint Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr

Lectionary: 340

Jesus took Peter, James, and John
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.

On this ordinary Saturday we are given a special treat, Saint Mark's account of the Transfiguration. It is a passage rich with meaning, one of those we can -- and do -- spend a lifetime contemplating. 
I begin by calling attention to those who appeared with Jesus, Moses and Elijah, and then disappeared. Saint Mark clearly states that, "Elijah appeared to them along with Moses...." Peter attested to the vision when he proposed to "make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 
The tent refers to an ancient tradition. Whenever the Ark of the Covenant was not being carried through the Sinai desert it was placed in a tent which only Moses and Aaron could enter. Arriving in Canaan they settled tent and Ark at Shiloh, the ancient pagan shrine where Jacob, centuries before, had seen the Lord at the top of an angelic ladder. King David closed that shrine when he brought the Ark to Jerusalem; his son Solomon built the temple with outer and inner rooms and one "Holy of Holies" where the Ark stayed. 
Unfortunately, the Ark was lost when the temple was razed and the city leveled during the Babylonian captivity. Legends say that Jeremiah carefully hid it in the caves around Jerusalem and it was never seen again. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem they rebuilt the temple without the Ark, keeping a copy of the Torah in the innermost sanctuary. 
Seeing Jesus transfigured with Moses and Elijah, Peter realized something huge was happening and he must respond. He supposed they should build a new shrine on this "high mountain," dedicated to the three greatest prophets: Jesus, Moses and Elijah. He was onto something but his insight was seriously premature. 
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;then from the cloud came a voice....
The whole party of six -- visions and visionaries -- apparently disappeared in the cloud and they heard "a voice." Whatever was happening had little to do with the visual; it was about the audible -- what they heard. Nor would it be about the place, for they immediately left the mountain and returned to the plain. 

American Christian spirituality might be called "experiential." We want the experience of knowing Jesus. Many Americans can tell you the time and place when they "met the Lord." Their lives were changed in that moment. Others seek the experience of ecstasy, nirvana, awareness or enlightenment. Their search may take them from church and synagogue to meditation, exotic shrines, theme parks and chemistry. Their ultimate quest, the meaning of life, is to fill a bucket with adventures. 
Peter, James and John were commanded something else: "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” 
Your salvation is not about what or how you feel; it's about to whom you listen. It's not about the experience; it's about the message you heard and the mission you were given during the experience. Many people have had no such experience of bliss but they listen attentively to the Lord despite that. 
Always we must listen to Jesus. 
Finally, we notice the preference the Father gives to the Son as the Voice commands, "Listen to him." Moses and Elijah remain as major figures in our tradition. We cannot know the Lord without studying Saint Matthew's innumerable references to Moses. Elijah the fiery prophet prefigures the ministry of Jesus, who baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit. But all of our traditions, Jewish and pagan, are reborn in Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew sums it up nicely, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." 
There are certainly those who question this "incarnational spirituality." They ask, why should I listen to or obey any man? That question cannot be answered with reasons; it can be satisfied with testimony. 

Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, Apostle

Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.

We've heard this story hundreds of times as it's retold in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. It recalls that inaugural moment when it all began, when Peter stepped forward to speak for himself, the disciples and all the church. Inspired by the Holy Spirit and instructed by the heavenly Father, he correctly identified the Nazarene as "the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Jesus was delighted by his insight. He could see God's plan unfolding before his eyes with Peter's bold statement. 
We should notice the fact that this revelation came in the form of a conversation. It began with one man's question, another man's answer and the gift, a blessing, that bound them together. As we worship the Lord we must notice his continual conversation with God his Father, a conversation which ranges from eternity to eternity. As Saint John says, "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God." 
Sometimes conversations are more like contests as the parties talk at each other without listening to one another. Each person tries to tell the other something and they engage in a kind of duel. 
Samuel Johnson is remembered as one of the great conversationalists of his time, as recorded by his friend James Boswell. He often gathered a group of young scholars and entertained them with his quips. But as I have read the accounts they sound more like one man talking everyone else into the floor. He simply shouted or glared or talked over them. He was clever enough to make it fun and his young coterie kept coming back, but he was not given to respecting these young men as equals. He famously opposed the American Revolution with its principle of equality. 
Jesus engages in a conversation with the Father because they have equal, albeit infinite, dignity. They give that to each other. 
Often, when we think of God and our relationship with him we defer to God's superiority. The conversation might even begin with, "Since I cannot be God and you are, I'll defer to you!" Which of us has not, like Adam and Eve, attempted to be like gods? Finding our lives wrecked by the attempt, we surrender to the most high God. Sometimes, that leads to a worse catastrophe as we would remind others that they should worship God as we do. We pretend to be God's assistants who will enforce the reign of goodness, truth and righteousness. Our belief in hierarchy and its maintenance prevails!
But Jesus reveals a continual conversation with God and invites us into it. He is delighted in today's gospel, to discover the Father has spoken directly to Peter. He does not seem jealous of his prerogative to be God's spokesperson. Later he will bestow the Holy Spirit upon Peter and the Church, who will reveal deeper mysteries to us. Of course, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit speak with one voice and their message is consistent, but we have to notice the lack of competition in their conversation. 
Conversation is an art. It is like a dance of two or more persons moving together joyfully and fluidly, without bumping or bruising. How often have we delighted to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance? Their artistry seems immortal. (And she, as women will remind us, matched Astaire step for step, backwards and in high heels!) 
I often meet people who are ready to talk. I sometimes meet people who are ready to listen. I rarely meet anyone who is ready to engage in conversation. It almost takes a pact, an intentional decision of both parties: "Let us share our thoughts, and attempt to listen as clearly as we speak! And perhaps come to new insight and new agreement." 
When we announce the Good News we celebrate the newness of Jesus' conversation with us, the Gospel he has enjoyed with the Father and the Holy Spirit from all eternity. We celebrate the deep respect God gives to the creatures made in his image. As co-creators with God we delight in the new, fresh beginning of each day. 

Thursday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days....

Our nation fancies itself successful. It is driven by industries, churches and political parties that must succeed at all costs, that are too big to fail. Consequently, we suffer profound anxiety about failure. Uncle Sam tosses and turns throughout the night at the prospect. Something mysterious and terrifying whispers into his open, defenseless ear, "Failure is an option."
Most of us have failed in many ways, morally as well as socially and financially, in our work and in our hobbies, with our health and ambitions, with friends and family. We expected better of ourselves; and if we had any admirers they too were disappointed. Most of our failures were quiet and unnoticed, thank God. Some were spectacular. They afforded us our fifteen minutes of fame -- or infamy, as the case may be.

The synoptic gospels recalled Jesus' three predictions of his coming passion and death. Clearly he did not expect a triumphal apotheosis in Jerusalem. The crowds were prepared to welcome a conquering hero but his entry on a donkey mocked their ecstatic greeting. What they saw left them bemused and confused -- and finally angry.
Saint Paul pondered this mystery in his Letter to the GalatiansChrist ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree...
This "curse" was necessary as he adds, "...that the blessing of Abraham might be extended to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
Our Catholic tradition celebrates the failure of Jesus, especially with three falls along the Way of the Cross. The Gospel of Saint John says he carried his own cross; the synoptic gospels say that Simon of Cyrene assisted. But the devotional Stations say he fell three times, each one worse than the last. There is nothing graceful or dignified about an adult's trip and fall. Polite people look the other way and say nothing if the lady seems unhurt.

As I have heard people tell of their own failures, I have come to believe that God doesn't know the meaning of the words success or failure. They are not in the Lord's vocabulary. They have their usefulness for us, of course. How else would I describe my best efforts?
In the end, I find comfort in the quip, "There are no answers; there are only stories."
The stories are gospels, one for each of us. We hope our lives with their triumphs and catastrophes are gospel stories like that of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. In every true story there is a crisis, a failure that can only be redeemed by God's mercy. I hear these stories often in the hospital ministry, and I am grateful.

Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

When the LORD smelled the sweet odor, he said to himself: 
“Never again will I doom the earth because of man 
since the desires of man’s heart are evil from the start; 
nor will I ever again strike down all  living beings, as I have done. 
As long as the earth lasts, 
seedtime and harvest, 
cold and heat, 
Summer and winter, 
and day and night 
shall not cease.” 

As we reflect on the challenge of otherness, we hear the conclusion of the story of the Deluge. The Lord has repented of the terrible destruction and resolved never again "to strike down all living beings, as I have done."
There is a "life-sized replica" of Noah's Ark in northern Kentucky, not far from Cincinnati. A religious theme park, it promotes a creationist version of Christianity. In response to this absurd display, some critics ​have described the God of Genesis 6-8 as an insane, mass murderer. They get a kick out of that sort of thing.
I'll let that controversy be and just reflect on the mystery of otherness. The Lord's repentance in Genesis 8 reflects a human reaction to emotional upheaval. Meeting disagreement and opposition, feeling angry frustration, we brand our enemies as evil and anoint ourselves as Avengers of Righteousness. But when the anger passes, as it always does, and we see our enemies wounded and overwhelmed with grief for the punishment we have exacted, we regret our hastiness.
Clearly that method of dealing with evil fails miserably and consistently. As tempting as it is to respond to opposition with violence, as "natural" and "necessary" as it might seem, it accomplishes nothing and must be undone. The destroyed city must be rebuilt, the orphaned children must be adopted. The dead must be buried and grieved.
We cannot overcome the otherness of other people with violence. Whether we use catastrophic flooding, confusion of languages or fire from heaven, the effort is counterproductive, disappointing and disgraceful.
We must finally do as God has done, befriend the enemy – even if “the desires of man’s heart are evil from the start.” But that judgement may also be too hasty. As we get to know our enemies we realize their concerns are real although their perspective is different. Their desires are not so diabolical. Neither, for that matter, are our desires so pure.
In Genesis 8 we learn the origin of the rainbow. It’s multiple colors remind us that people too come in many colors. Just as the arc in the sky stretches over all people as a sign of mercy, God’s church must be a rainbow coalition to cover every nation.

Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

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.

Nihilists would agree with the LORD's assessment in Genesis 6, the Earth would be better off without this human creature. We seem only to make a mess. Where the 19th century nihilist saw economic and political forces wasting human life, anticipating the senseless carnage of the 20th century wars and 21st century terrorism, the modern nihilist wonders why we're on this planet at all. (Nihil in Latin means "nothing") 
If the 19th century nihilist was a philosopher, the 21st century nihilist is an alcoholic or drug addict. Or perhaps she just tweets, facebooks, games and watches mindless television shows hour after hour. The intro to "Big Bang Theory" raised the question: "Several billion years of evolution led to this?"
The question is not new. It's there in the Book of Genesis. God "regretted that he had made man on the earth and his heart was grieved."
But perhaps this vapidity is not the real issue. Perhaps this ennui is born of disappointment: "What's the point of life if I cannot have what I want? Why should I exist if I have to deal continually with other people who don't give me what I want?"
The God of Genesis 6 is disappointed with the way things are going with his creature. He expected something different and much better of molded mud enlivened by his breath.
In my meditation yesterday I concluded that Cain was not prepared to recognize the otherness of his brother Abel. Where Cain preferred to plow the earth, Abel tended sheep. Discovering that God inexplicably favored Abel, he grew impatient and jealous, and then vicious.
This challenge of otherness is continual; it is really the world we live in.
The Christian revelation, appearing many centuries after Genesis was written, reveals a Triune God who enfolds otherness into divinity. The Father is not the Son and is not the Spirit; nor are the Son and Spirit the same. Although they are not the same they embrace one another in perfect love and acceptance. (We don't suppose they love each other because they should. We have seen it in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.) 
Where human beings quarrel with one another, and the most quarrelsome pairs are those who most resemble each other, we meet a God who is one substance yet three persons. The only difference between the Father and Son is the Father is not the Son. But they are substantially the same.
What really bothered Cain was his own brother! They were like each other in every way, but Abel was a shepherd! A shepherd, for God's sake! How can any reasonable person want to be a shepherd? It makes no sense. And then when God favored the shepherd, that sent Cain over the edge.
There are as many ways to read Genesis 6 as there are people to read it; but I see in the story a developing understanding of God. This God is unwise; he has not yet learned that threats and punishment -- even catastrophic punishment -- change nothing in the human heart. If the experiment of a creature in his own image has gone badly, the punishment by deluge will go worse. Noah and his kin will be no better than their ancestors. Confusing the languages of Babel is mischief and the destruction of the cities of the plain by fire will be an exercise in futility. 
A new story, beginning with Abraham, represents another tack. God will stoop down not to flood the earth or to confuse the languages but to befriend a man and make of him a great nation. The birth of Jesus will go further -- God will be born of a woman and suffer at the hands of men. He will become totally subject to the otherness of this creature, allowing himself even to be despised, accused, judged, condemned and executed.
Our salvation begins when we accept the otherness of God. Although I am created in God's image, God is not me writ large. I am not god; I cannot have my way. There is no reason I should expect to have my way but I can expect to die like anyone else.
Nor should I be disappointed by this fate. Quite the contrary, I am delighted! I am not God! Thank God! I cannot have my way! Hurray! If I am saddened by the way things turn out, it's a healthy sadness, a full participation in the sorrow that accompanies pain and suffering. I will drink deeply of that cup even as Jesus did in the Garden.
But, fortunately, most of us embrace the monotony of daily prayer, sipping pleasure and disappointment in small amounts. We take shelter in prayer, looking through the psalms at this tragic, beautiful world which God has made. We don't pray for a deluge though we might fear one. We don't stand outside at night expecting an apocalypse, though we do hope for one -- in God's time.

Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 335

He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”

With today's first reading we remember the tragedy of Cain and Abel. Genesis tells us that Cain was "resentful and crestfallen" because, "the LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not." This resentment was a variant of the original sin of Adam and Eve, an impingement on God's authority. Where the first couple had intentionally eaten of the forbidden tree, Cain apparently regarded God's favoring his brother Abel as unfair. 

But God did regard Cain and warned him about his attitude, "Why are you so resentful and crestfallen? If you do well, you can hold up your head...." 
Cain's sin begins with a lack of self-respect. He does not hold up his head. Cain has presented God with "an offering from the fruit of the soil." Why his gift is not favored should not be his problem. The Lord favors whom he will for reasons of his own, reasons that may involve future plans beyond anyone's imagination, or a thousand other reasons, or no particular reason. 
Created in God's own image everyone has preferences that need no explanation. One person is right-handed; another is left-handed. One person likes red; another favors yellow. Some people like baseball; others prefer football. Most people are heterosexual; some people are homosexual. Cain prefers farming; Abel raises sheep. There is rarely a scientific explanation for these preferences. Nor should there be. To each his own. Let it be.
This diversity represents a problem to some people. They don't understand it. They don't like it. They think it should not be. They would rather not consider it as they deal with other people. 
And yet this diversity is as fundamental as sexuality. Men are from Mars, women are from VenusAnyone who thinks all people should think, act and be alike will never find a home on this planet, although they may loudly insist that their neighbors should go back to Asia, Africa or Europe. Inevitably, their resentment turns violent, even as Cain murdered his brother -- because they lack self-respect. 
The Pharisees in today's gospel have enough information to know Jesus represents a new reality. And they can clearly see God's favor upon this new Abel. They resent him deeply. But there is nothing Jesus can say to relieve their distress or reassure their fears. "No sign will be given."
Those who are ready to let God be God, and others be others, who are willing to be confronted continually by the mystery of otherness will be saved.

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.

Whether you study the Sermon on the Mount found in Saint Matthew's gospel or the Sermon on the Plain of Saint Luke, you must be challenged by Jesus' words. 

Christians are more familiar with Saint Matthew's beatitudes; Saint Luke's are markedly different. There are half as many blessings, only four; but these four are balanced by something not found in Matthew's list, four curses, "But woe to you...."
We often reflect upon the promises of the gospel, we don't reflect as often upon the threats:
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.”
If we suppose that God's promises are worthy of our faith, we should not dismiss his threats as old fashioned nonsense. 

Recently there is a family on trial for the manufacture and sale of opioids to unsuspecting citizens whose lives were wrecked by the "medicines." The story is necessarily complex but some people who suffered minor injuries or minor surgeries were prescribed huge numbers of pain-killing pills. Following their doctors' recommendations, they found themselves addicted. These were not criminals. They were law-abiding, tax paying citizens who suffered a minor mishap. Many worshiped in their local church. They suffered pain long after their injuries should have healed because the medication actually prolongs the suffering. Some have died of overdose, of suicide or of criminal violence.
People place blame in every direction: manufacturers, sales representatives, doctors, patients, insurers, federal regulators, and therapists who are moving into the field of pain management and opioid addiction. Federal courts will sort it out but only God knows who should be punished.

Here's my own particular contribution to the discussion: "If you hope to do well by doing good, be careful. Be very careful."

Many people in the pharmaceutical industry -- especially the manufacturers, sales personnel and doctors -- did very well indeed. They became extremely wealthy on the backs of suffering patients. Some of them have fled the country. A few will be prosecuted but most will be acquitted since no one forced the victims to swallow the pills or inject the drug. You can be sure the accused will have the best justice money can buy.
In today's gospel Jesus warns the rich, the content, the happy and the well-respected of their impending doom. They might argue they did nothing illegal and meant no harm. Most would not be accused of crime in any city, state or federal court; much less convicted. They only intended to do well in a system that rewards the ambitious and punishes the unwary.
If accused by a meddlesome stranger they could reasonably ask, "I sold pain relieving medicine. Isn't pain relief a good thing? Am I responsible for the patient who failed to follow precise medical advice? Am I responsible for the doctor who over-prescribed a medication that has been proven useful? Hospitals feared a loss of market share if their patients complained of pain! Is that my fault?
"Am I my brother's keeper?"

The Gospels reveal a God who rewards virtue and punishes wickedness. Human societies have been trying -- and failing -- to do that since prehistoric times. We have lawyer jokes that are nearly as old for we know every human system of justice is profoundly corrupt. It protects the powerful and punishes the weak. The Hebrew prophets railed against it even in the holy city of Jerusalem and could not prevail. But they believed what Jesus taught, that justice will prevail.

If you expect to do well by doing good, remember Hebrews 10:31
We know the one who said: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,”
and again: “The Lord will judge his people.” 
and “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

Saturday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Then, taking the seven loaves he gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to his disciples to distribute,
and they distributed them to the crowd.

This gospel story of Jesus feeding four thousand people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish must remind us of the Eucharist. Saint Mark gives us the four part formula we still use in our Mass: 1) he took the bread; 2) he blessed it; 3) he broke it, and 4) he gave it to his disciples. These four parts correspond to the Offertory, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Fraction and Distribution of the Eucharist. On a Saturday, with our traditional references to the Virgin Mother, we can suppose Jesus learned this four part formula from his mother. It was the tradition she and her generation had received since ancient times.

In our time, when one of every three meals is taken in a restaurant, we should reflect on the civilizing effect of Jesus' action. Despite the desperate circumstance of "seven loaves and a few fish" to feed four thousand people, we do not imagine a panicked rush when the food was distributed. Later, when the story reappears in the sixth chapter, we learn that, "he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties." Calm prevailed as they watched Jesus and waited upon the ministry of his disciples.

When human beings feed we should do it with ceremony. We are not cattle or savage animals that eat without awareness of the blessing of food and our need for it. When they eat they do so because their instincts tell them they must. They need no more ceremony than that. We eat with the realization that eating forestalls starvation and death.

But with our complex ability to think, we bring more than that existential desperation to our feeding. We have our cultural expectations of food (American, French, German, Italian, etc) each one representing a tradition with roots in antiquity. We have our nutritional concerns and habitual preferences. (I know people who won't eat vegetables despite innumerable recommendations from recognized authorities.) We have table etiquette and customs, including placement at the table and place settings. If someone were suddenly teleported from a table in the United States to a table in Asia he might not know what to eat or how! There is nothing simple about human feeding.

So, there in the wilderness, Jesus fed four thousand people with a few loaves and some fish. They had to notice how dependent they were on his mercy even as they found their places under his authority. We can imagine they were tempted to rush at the food. Even cultured people in tuxedos and high heels can get testy when the food is delayed, and when the doors are finally opened to the dining room they struggle to do it with decorum. This mob in the desert had no such pretensions. Only their respect for Jesus' authority could restrain them. Apparently it did for, "They all ate and were satisfied."
Of course, this meal also had its traditions as the four thousand must have known. They remembered the Lord had led their ancestors into the Sinai wilderness where they survived by God's mercy for forty years. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob provided manna, quail and water for their survival as they left it. Nor had they suffered the loss of essentials like clothing and sandals. More recently, only five centuries before, the prophets had described that desert sojourn like a honeymoon.
This day with Jesus augured a new beginning, a new marriage of God and his people, of Jesus and his church. We celebrate this wedding feast with every Mass, and take particular delight in his company.

Friday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

He took him off by himself away from the crowd.

Twice we hear in the seventh chapter of Saint Mark that phrase, "away from the crowd." Not everything that Jesus said or did was for public consumption. The man had secrets which he would disclose only to a select few. He told more to the seventy-two than he revealed to the crowds; and more to the twelve than to the seventy-two; and more to Peter, James and John than to the twelve. In the Gospel of John he whispered only to the beloved disciple, the identity of his betrayer. Plus, he often went apart, into the wilderness, to pray alone.
Many people have complained about our culture war on solitude. We seem to confuse public and private space so that neither is secure. Politicians, entertainers and clergy apparently have no right to privacy. If clergy and elected officials still expect a degree of privacy, entertainers recklessly squander theirs in a bid for notoriety.
When I demurred about a minister's ugly remarks about Jackie Kennedy he insisted the deceased widow had no right to privacy, since she had been married to a president.
I have seen media-weary Americans flock to the church for a moment of peace and quiet. Despite the opening collect, they cannot be collected into a congregation because they are so desperate for inner solitude. They find it nowhere else. Their homes are ablaze with advertising, their cars scream the radio, their restaurants maintain unwatched but noisy televisions; even their hospital rooms and lounges are flooded with distraction. Arriving in the sanctuary of a church, they cannot sing, they cannot hear the scriptures. They can only use the time to recuperate some personal energy.

Christians gather frequently to worship God as a church but our assemblies must be enriched by our solitary practice. The "feast" of our public liturgy requires a "postprandial" of  private contemplation as we consider the scriptures we have heard and the virtues we have celebrated. Without it the gathering is little more than cheap entertainment, a pep rally or a political demonstration.

"What a man is in God's presence," Saint Francis said, "is what he is, and nothing more." Our religious tradition cultivates solitary prayer and a sense of one's standing alone in God's presence. With practices like the daily examen, Lectio Divina, discernment of spirits and centering prayer the Christian discovers her identity in God's presence. We're often driven to these practices by a personal crisis but, having set out, we realize we cannot turn back. The knowledge of God is too precious to be ignored. His reassurance, even as we discover our sins, is too compelling to be dismissed.