This is a blog that I post to several times a week although not necessarily daily. These reflections are triggered by the scripture found in the lectionary used by many Christian denominations. While I am part of the Catholic tradition, these posts are not --or rarely--sectarian. I try to put myself in the space of a of Jesus Christ and listen to words that come to me as I read and pray the scriptures. Each post also includes a photograph. These rarely have any connection to the content of the post but are simply pleasing images that I capture as I make my pilgrimage through life.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Potential for a dangerous misinterpretation

Before sunrise
He also told them, "Take care what you hear.
The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you, 
and still more will be given to you.
To the one who has, more will be given; 
from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away."  Mark 4:24-25
These less than direct sayings of Jesus are repeated in the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  It is therefore pretty clear that the earliest Christian communities took them as authentic sayings of Jesus the Christ.  Our modern ears are tempted to pass over these sayings without giving them much attention.  They seem to be saying that the rich get richer which strikes us as inconsistent with the overall message of Jesus.  And, it is.  So what is going on here?

Perhaps as 21st century Americans, we are primed to think that we are masters of our fate.  To our ears, it makes perfect sense to think that what we do determines what the Divine One does.  Whatever measure we use is the measure that the Divine One uses.  The text does not specify what is being measured.  Nor does it specify what one has in the final verse.  If we reflect from within the context of the full message of Jesus, we quickly realize that we cannot determine or even condition the way that the Divine One relates to us.  If we can determine divine behavior then the Divine One that we thus conceive cannot be divine, cannot be God.  Quite the opposite.  The central message of Jesus is grace.  Our faith and salvation is pure, unmerited grace, a gift freely and fully offered by the Divine One regardless of our acceptance or rejection.

Indeed the measure we use to measure others will match the measure the Divine One uses to measure us, not because our measure causes the divine measure but exactly the opposite.  The divine measure--accepted fully by us--will be reflected in the measure we use to measure others.  That is why more will be given, no matter how much has been given because the source is inexhaustible and limited only by our capacity to accept.  Using a more familiar term may be helpful.  Our generosity towards others will be a reflection of the generosity of the Divine One toward us to the extent that we accept that generosity.  This generosity buds and blossoms in our lives naturally the way fruit buds and blossoms in an orchard.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Which comes first: forgiveness or acceptance?

Bonaventure Cemetery outside Savannah GA
Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that Jesus was eating with sinners
and tax collectors and said to his disciples,
"Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
Jesus heard this and said to them,
"Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners." 
Mark 2:16-17
This little story about the earliest stage in the ministry of Jesus holds particular meaning for those of us who are Christians in 21st century America.  These few lines are significant because they present to different, even contradictory, approaches to living a life of faithfulness.  The scholars who question the disciples are members of a sect of Jews we have come to know as Pharisees.  We don't know a lot about this sect.  It was not a large group.  It did not have all that much influence.  Its power was based on its approach to a righteous life which focused on detailed compliance with the rules and regulations of religious practice.  Jesus once criticized them for laying heavy burdens of observance on ordinary people.  They were particularly concerned with the laws of purity and the necessity of living within a community of believers and excluding non-believers.

They were scandalized by Jesus' insistence on fellowship with a diverse set of people, especially non-Jews, publicly recognized sinners like prostitutes and tax collectors, lepers and others concerned unclean, and the poor and imprisoned.  This was made even worse by his failure to abide by rules of ritual purity and the sabbath.  His very existence and life was an affront to the central self identity of the Pharisees.  While the Pharisees sought to influence people through their detailed and rule-based religious observance, Jesus was generating a large following by seemingly living in direct opposition to their rules and judgments.  His popularity was an indictment of their core principles.  This dynamic helps me understand the intensity of their opposition to Jesus, culminating in his death.  He was a threat to their existence.

So there are two approaches to living a righteous life.  The first focuses on rules and regulations and a life enclosed within a community of "true believers."  The other focuses on relationships with all kinds of people and does not make "righteousness" a requirement of fellowship and acceptance.  It was not the case that Jesus was sharing table fellowship with former sinners and tax collectors.  He clearly intended to all include all especially those who were "sick" and just those who were well.  The love of his father was not exclusive and he was intent on living a life that reflected that all inclusive love.

During my lifetime, Catholicism in the United States has grown from a "ghetto" religion into one squarely in the mainstream of American culture.  That transition is a challenge and is on-going.  It is easier to maintain your identity within a community of like-minded true believers but that is not the world into which we are called to be disciples.  How to maintain our identity and spontaneity in a world whose values are inimical to ours is our central challenge.  The message of Jesus, to me at least, is not to turn our backs on the world and retreat into closed communities but rather to trust the inclusive love of the Divine One.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Don't just stand there. Do something!

Discovery Cube, Orange County Science Center
By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said,
"This is a deserted place and it is already very late. 
Dismiss them so that they can go 
to the surrounding farms and villages
and buy themselves something to eat." 
He said to them in reply,
"Give them some food yourselves."   Mark 6:35-37
 As Jesus and his disciples sought to get away by themselves, people from the region figured out where they were headed and they found a huge crowd waiting for them.  Jesus looked at these people and " had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things."  The content of his teaching is not included but we surely know that he taught the message described in 1 John 3:23-24.
"[They]...should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us. Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit that he gave us."
 And further that Spirit is love as John makes clear in today's first reading.

This passage describes one of the miracles or wonders performed by Jesus.  This miracle tends to obscure the fundamental message of the story and the reason why we can still read it today with some sense of relevance to our own lives.  Admittedly the miracles of Jesus have always been a problem for me.  It seems so unlikely that Jesus, living as a fully human person, could cause all these physical miracles and cures.  Yet Christians believe that he is fully divine.  Stories such as this one are often cited as proof of the divinity of Jesus the Christ.  If they are all true, it seems hard to deny that there was something supernatural about this person.  Multiplying a few loaves and fish to feed a crowd of more than 5,000 seems pretty strong evidence.  Yet, it did not convince Jesus' contemporaries.  There were still plenty of people, arguably the vast majority, who did not recognize him as Messiah, let alone as the Son of God, whatever that might have meant to them. 

There are two questions here.  Do I have to believe these stories as historically accurate in order to be a Christian.  Second, what is the message of this passage for me today?  I have been reading Dynamics of Faith (1957) by Paul Tillich, one of the major Christian theologians of the 20th Century.  According to Tillich, "faith is the state of being ultimately concerned:  the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of humanity's ultimate concern."  The language of faith deal with symbols, images that express the ultimate concern of human beings.  The language of faith is not historically accurate narrative, scientific analysis, or philosophical reasoning.  Faith is about stories and images that convey the ultimate concerns, concerns that take precedence over other concerns.  As others have pointed out, the historicity of biblical stories is, respectfully, beside the point.  The stories tells us what our predecessors in the faith have believed, what they have held as ultimate concerns.  So I can have my doubts about the miracles and still be a committed Christian.  I can also fully accept the historicity of the biblical narratives and be a committed Christian but not because I believe the stories.  Faith comes from a different place.

So what does this story tell me about the ultimate concern of Jesus, what is he trying to tell me today about my ultimate concern?  It is pretty straightforward.  When I see people in need, I need to do more than just point out the problem and hope that someone will respond.  I need to do something about it.  I may be and feel inadequate to the task but that doesn't get me off the hook.  Doing something, anything, gives shape and reality to my compassion.  And that is what Jesus is trying to point out in this story.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Compassion, not anger

First light in the Grand Canyon

This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.  1 John 3:16-17  Translation from The Message Bible  Daily Lectionary Readings
 At its core, the Christian message is simple.  If I have means and advantages and I see others in need because they do not have those, I am called to compassion and appropriate action.  If I do not, then the love of God disappears from my life because I have closed my self to the Divine's One unending offer of love and life.  This seems straightforward enough when it comes to those caught in poverty or discrimination.  But what about those who are called "the left behind?"

These are the people whose education, skills, and opportunities have not prepared them for the economic realities of the 21st century in America.  They are the ones who assumed that manufacturing jobs would be there for them as they were for their parents and grandparents and now find that the global economy has shifted those jobs beyond their reach.  They have consolidated their isolation and desperation into a political voice that has elected a President who promises a return to the way things used to be and who has demonized migrants and those who are not "real Americans" as the scapegoats for these difficulties.

As someone who came from a lower middle class working family, I find anger rising in me.  My father made clear to me and my siblings that we were going to college so we would be better off than he was.  He harbored no illusions that we, especially his sons, should follow his steps into a well paying job as a mechanic in the local electric utility.  H and my mother sacrificed to send us to excellent high schools and then on to college.  It was not easy for them but they understood what they wanted for their children.  I honestly feel resentment toward those who had the same opportunities open to them but who failed to take advantage of them and I specifically mean white males.  (Being female or African American meant that you did not have the same opportunities.)  I feel resentment when they and their children now demand special accommodations because the world didn't turn out the way they anticipated or hoped it would.  I get particularly upset when they blame the very people who did not these same opportunities:  African-Americans, women, and more recently Latinos.

And yet, my Christian faith calls me to compassion not anger or resentment.  I continue to struggle with this.