We Need to Be John the Baptist Today

Many people say that words fail us during these times of great challenge, when parents can’t even send their kids to kindergarten.

I respectfully disagree. I can say that many of us don’t know what to say during times when horrendous situations befall us, and to protect ourselves from saying something stupid, we say nothing. And that suffices, most of the time. Our presence is more than enough and often that is only what people remember anyway. I remember little of what has been said to me at funerals, but I always remember those that went out of their way to be there.

But that doesn’t mean that preachers and pastoral workers can take the easy way out. Words may not be able to express all that we feel, but they can certainly express something. A friend told me that a mass she attended started with a priest refusing to light the third Gaudete (rejoice) candle for the third Sunday of Advent because we cannot rejoice today.

Yeesh, what an awful message of hopelessness. If I were there I probably would’ve walked out, but not before yelling “BLASPHEMY!”

The truth of the matter is when we don’t have the words to express our feelings the church gives us words. The words of scripture and the gospel and the words that struck me most today are from the gospel from.John the Baptist. Heard in today’s context, they struck me quite differently than usual:

“Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”

You see we all need to be that herald’s voice today. We all need to shout for joy because The Lord is alive. My grammar school friend Keith Pitts, summed it up greatly today by saying “I’m too blessed to stay stressed!” Note that it says “stay” not “be” because we all become stressed for a variety of reasons but with God we have no reason to stay stressed because God always has the last word.

And we need to share that message of how we can rejoice in the face of such darkness today.

Because God always makes a way out of no way.

Our cloak today is that love that God has offered to us in the darkest moments of our lives that we now share with those who are stuck in darkness. When we see injustice, or worse, when we see people like the Westboro Baptist Church take up their vile words of hatred towards those who are hurt, we need to stand up and say “No, we rejoice in God’s redemption, forgiveness and God’s strength in righting all that hatred tried to upend for us this week.”

Gaudete Sunday is all about words. God’s words that remind us to rejoice because God is with us even in our pain. God is beyond us, somehow holding those who died tightly where no harm will ever come to them again. And God is within us, beckoning us to cloak all those unable to feel God’s love, that Gaudete we speak of, with our own words of healing and touch of understanding their pain.

This was not OK. And today begins our journey to tell the world that God doesn’t think so either.

For tonight…we have only one word. Gaudete …the words of the baptist’s call that God is near and that we need to repent and rejoice…
….and those words of rejoicing are always more than enough.

When It Seems Like the Stars are Falling Out of the Sky

Here is a reflection from last night’s apocalyptic Sunday readings:

Hey! What’s new?

That can be a catch up line…But “what’s new” can also be scary. After all, who knows what day it will be when our world ends? The Mayans tell us that the world will end of December 21, 2012 at 11:11 …I’m not sure if that’s Eastern Standard Time or not–so don’t hold me to that!

And while I’m not buying that prediction and hope you’re not either, it has given me reason to reflect on the question of:

Where will you be when your world ends?

And we can take that any way we wish…because the truth is that your world ends pretty often.

Let’s face it….Your world ends when something unexpected or tragic happens…someone dies, you lose a job, you break up, there’s a hurricane.

What’s new…sometimes is not at all good!

And the truth of today’s readings is not merely to be careful, or even fearful because life can change in a moment’s notice–it’s precisely the opposite.

The message of the Gospel is to live more boldly—not just because our time on earth is fleeting but also because Jesus reminds us that even when our world ends: God is always near, caring for us anyway—making all things new.

For people of faith, even the end of the world is a new beginning.

Jesus tells us in the Gospel:

“In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.”

What a great image because a gate often represents a time of transition. And whenever a gate closes we stand on the opposite side of it at a new beginning. And we have the freedom to go any way we wish and God will be with us on that journey.

And we need to trust that when all kinds of horrible things surround us each day: War, hurricanes, break-ups, deaths…that God continues to be faithful to us.

And that is not an easy thing to remember.

Because in our most challenging moments don’t we often let fear and even hopelessness take the lead? Don’t we often question if God is even there at all? Don’t we fear, just a bit, that when the world ends there just might not be a Jesus on the other side of it all?

Do you know what I fear more than anything else?

That I simply just don’t become forgotten!

And I have some logical reasons to fear that. Because how many of us can remember our great-great-grandparents? Probably very few of us. What about people even older than that in our heritage? Oh sure, we can look up the geneology records but honestly the truth is that most of us will eventually become just like them. Forgotten.

And think that is why we come here. Because God reminds us that becoming forgotten on this earth doesn’t matter.

Because even when our entire generation, all those with first hand knowledge of our very existence passes away… God still remembers us.

What’s even better is that God embraces us, each one of us, and all he asks each one of us to do is to remember that.

And if we do, well, shouldn’t we live a bit more joyfully? Filled with this good news, shouldn’t this call us to not be afraid of what will happen at the end of our world because we know and believe that God makes all things new?

And when we come hear each week, we come not merely to fulfill an obligation out of fear but also, don’t we also come to be reminded of the great hope that God gives us here at this altar where we see God provide for us his body and blood, our reminder to us, that just as God changes bread and wine into His body and His blood, He also changed death into life.

And because God makes all things new again, shouldn’t that call us to do the same?

When tragedy strikes often everyone else tells us we should lay down..but God tells us to get up. Everyone tells us it’s hopeless…God tells us to hope. There is always more to talk about than despair.

These are the last few weeks of our Church calendar. In just two weeks, we move into the season of advent. And what do we do at the end of the year? We make resolutions. We try to die to some old ways of living that aren’t healthy. Lose a few pounds. Eat healthier. Spend more time with family and friends. Get rid of some bad habits. Forgive someone… or ask forgiveness ourselves.

Why do we do that? Because in the deep recesses of our soul we know that we too are called to make all things new. And we need to be mindful of the fact that just as we live a bit more each day, we also die a bit more each day.

So, there’s one question for us to answer tonight: What do you want to make new in your life?

This week know that God is ready to help you make something new on that journey. And even better….

when it seems like the sun has been darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars seem to be falling from the sky,
and one might think that the powers in the heavens have be shaken.

That’s when God is even closer to us, embracing us, and inviting us to stretch ourselves just a bit farther to believe that God still exists at all, despite all the problems we are going to face over the course of our lives.

As we begin to move towards Advent–let us remember that God is already here.

And guess what…that’s nothing new.

To Whom Would You Give Your Right Arm?

A dental student last year asked one of his classmates a provocative question before their big gross anatomy test.

“Linda, would you cut off your “ring finger toe” in exchange for an “A” on this test?”

I quickly pointed out that if he was about to take an anatomy test and the only way he knew how to name a toe was to call it a finger–he was in big trouble.

But nonetheless, Linda pondered the question…

Linda then said “Well…maybe I would do it for an A in the COURSE…but not for one measely test.”

And all their other classmates agreed–amputation for an A.

As their chaplain I felt it my duty to tell them that they are going to freak people out when they wear flip-flops if they start cutting toes off their feet!

But…haven’t we all said things like this?

“I’d give my right arm for….that new car….the new iPad….a lower loan payment….a raise or a promotion….that cute woman or man?

What would you give your right arm for?

You don’t often hear someone say…I’d give my right eye…so children won’t go hungry tonight. Or so my roommate might not be depressed over that bad grade. Or so my neighborhood would be a safer place.

No don’t we leave those things for others to do most of the time? I know I do. I can find a hundred other things to do rather than to help out someone else. And when I see examples of others who do something so magnanimous–I sometimes say ” Oh she’s just trying to act “better than” all the rest of us.

There’s a great story about Mother Teresa, now Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. She was washing the sores of a dying man in the slums and a young american tourist saw this and said, “Man I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars!”

And Mother responded “Neither would I… But I would gladly do it for Jesus.”

You see, she wasn’t trying to be “better than” anyone…instead she was “better FOR” the encounter that she had with the Lord when she served the needs of the poor nearby because it was there that she met Jesus.

Now maybe none of us are exactly going to take on a “Mother Teresa-like project” at this point in our university careers or our professional lives, but, maybe we can start becoming a bit more sensitive to others by looking back on our lives and asking ourselves:

What are we “better for?”

What are the moments of our lives that we wouldn’t trade for anything? Maybe they’re simple one like that time you taught your little brother to shoot a basketball for the first time and saw his eyes light up and you were just so grateful to see that? Or maybe it’s the time you comforted your roommate after her boyfriend broke up with her and made her feel better about herself? Maybe you even took her out on the town. Or maybe it was when you studied together with a group of classmates and you all shored up each other’s weaknesses and you all got a better grade because of it? Aren’t we “better for” those moments?

Maybe it’s “a WHO”? Maybe there’s someone that you are just “better for” knowing? For me, Mickey Vertino is one of those people. Mickey worked in the Buffalo prisons for years. He’s had two shoulder surgeries and he has a bad knee and one would think that he would be resting easy in his retirement.

But instead Mickey is working in our neighborhood–trying to revitalize University Heights. We worked with Mickey last weekend down on W. Winspear Ave–making a flower box and clearing brush from the Linear Park pathway. Simple things perhaps, but tough work. And you’d never know Mickey had any kind of surgery because he was lifting heavier things than the rest of us who are a lot younger than he is.

Mickey would give his right arm for this neighborhood.

And because we have him to emulate…doesn’t he stand as a challenge to us and call to us to ask the question:

What would you give your right arm for? Your eye? A hand, that proverbial “ring finger toe”?

Or if that’s too severe—and it is—the question Jesus really is asking us tonight is not really about giving away eyes, or hands or feet… Instead Jesus asks only that we give our HEARTS—and nothing more.

For if we give our hearts–we give all of who we are.

Because we need to see with our hearts–not just our eyes. We need to feel with our hearts, not just our hands, and we need to have our hearts command our feet to take us places that we might not want to go–but when we do, we find we are better for those experiences and it’s there that we bump into God.

Jesus is reminding us that if we just look at suffering in the world and it doesn’t move our heart….well…we might as well tear our eyes out–because they’re not doing us much good.

And we can do this in simple ways…a great example from campus this week…

In our gross anatomy lab, I give out these little stress dolls before the first exam. (He doesn’t look like me AT ALL!) And the students love them—but there’s never enough for everyone. And a student came in late and he was really nervous about the exam and I watched one of our dental students run over to him and he decapitated his doll and hand the head to his classmate and they both calmed down together.

He saw that I caught him doing this and he looked at me and smiled and said “I shared!” I laughed but I want THAT guy to be my dentist! He’s a great and compassionate person. He saw his friend with his heart.

And it’s not just that doing things like this make us feel good…it’s that when we do things like this we find that we live more deeply because we allow God into our hearts and out of that experience—even if it doesn’t make us feel good, if if it’s hard work–God invites us into a deeper way of living. And when we experience that we find our hearts yearning for more of these experiences.

And perhaps that’s why we come here. Because don’t know that yearning already but sometimes need to be reminded (about once a week) that our hearts can indeed stretch much farther than we think they can? And when they do we are better for it and we find God has been lurking in our hearts all along.

And all we have to do to remember that is to look at the altar tonight because there we see God’s heart stretching to us–loving us, forgiving us and offering not just his heart but his body and blood for us. And it is more than enough.

And when we see that it calls us to yearn to offer ourselves, our hearts, and give just a bit more of who we are to those who require just a bit more from us.

Maybe you might give your right arm for that new car? But this week ask yourself this question: “To whom will I give my heart?”

Then Jesus said, “My Wife”?

Did Jesus marry? At least one historian is claiming a definite maybe.

From today’s NYT:

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ”
Enlarge This Image

Evan McGlinn for The New York Times
Professor Karen L. King, in her office at The Harvard Divinity School, held a fragment of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a reference to Jesus’ wife.

The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”

The finding was made public in Rome on Tuesday at an international meeting of Coptic scholars by Karen L. King, a historian who has published several books about new Gospel discoveries and is the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity.

The provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery, and its owner has asked to remain anonymous. Until Tuesday, Dr. King had shown the fragment to only a small circle of experts in papyrology and Coptic linguistics, who concluded that it is most likely not a forgery. But she and her collaborators say they are eager for more scholars to weigh in and perhaps upend their conclusions.

While this certainly does not come from a source that the hierarchy considers to be canonical, it indeed is quite a find and should presume that we certainly don’t know everything there is to know about the historical Jesus. Only what those who learned from the four major evangelists tell us.

The question, therefore, would remain: Why do the canonical Gospels not speak of a wife at all? Ironically, it could be because women were not considered reliable witnesses and after Mary Magdalene sees Jesus the men have to come running to confirm this “crazy women’s” story. Essentially, women didn’t count for much. so why mention them at all?

This will bring up much controversy in the media because clerical celibacy has been on the books because traditionally it’s been taught that Jesus also did not marry. But perhaps a more useful thought on the subject would be one based on commitment. Could a parish priest really be committed to a family AND a parish? Wouldn’t one predominate over the other?

I don’t pretend to know the answer to that. I do know plenty of doctors who are on call often and somehow juggle the demands of family along with the job and plenty of Protestant Ministers as well. However, I would also say I know a good deal of people in careers that are high on the commitment scale that have gotten divorced as well.

And that might be the larger reason why clerical celibacy still exists. Simply put, the church doesn’t want a clergy that seeks divorce and the danger in that is that pastoral care of a parish is a demanding job. I somehow manage to do this with my ministry but, we also don’t have children. I can imagine that being quite challenging as I see my colleagues who are parents doing quite the juggling act.

Regardless, it’s a cool find for Harvard. I’m sure we’ll here more but one thing is for certain.

This does not mean that Dan Brown is right and that the DaVinci Code was onto something. What it means is that there may be more to the historical Jesus’ life that has remained hidden.

But I Don’t Wanna…

Do you ever read the Gospel and hear words that you just don’t want to hear? Today perhaps is no different:

“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.
To the person who strikes you on one cheek,
offer the other one as well,
and from the person who takes your cloak,
do not withhold even your tunic.
Give to everyone who asks of you,
and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
For if you love those who love you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners love those who love them.

Luke makes Jesus sound like a doormat. Wouldn’t we all say that he’s describing a woman who was getting beat by her husband and kept going back to him and then made him a nice dinner?

Is there more to this than meets the eye? There must be.

Perhaps our first reading from Corinthians gives us a hint?

Knowledge inflates with pride, but love builds up.
If anyone supposes he knows something,
he does not yet know as he ought to know.
But if one loves God, one is known by him.

I would say that when we have knowledge of wrongdoing we can go overboard and find the person to be only that act that they committed. We can deprive people of their dignity even when they’ve done some very indignant things.

Later in the same reading…

But not all have this knowledge.
There are some who have been so used to idolatry up until now
that, when they eat meat sacrificed to idols,
their conscience, which is weak, is defiled.

Thus, through your knowledge, the weak person is brought to destruction,
the brother for whom Christ died.
When you sin in this way against your brothers
and wound their consciences, weak as they are,
you are sinning against Christ.

Paul urges that our actions have consequences (in this case eating defiled meat–a dated reference surely, but we can apply it here). I can remember seeing people doing things that I’d never expect them to do when I was younger. People having racist attitudes, people cheating others out of money, people being deceitful. Doesn’t that lead many of us to become what we are near? It’s like riding in a car with a chain smoker. Eventually, we both stink, even if he is the only one smoking.

I think the danger here is that we often lump everyone into the barrel that defines them by only their actions instead of transcending that attitude and trying to change our own environments by example. Sometimes we may have the hard task of calling someone out on the carpet for something they’ve done.

And quite often…I don’t wanna do that. It is in fact easier not to do that. A young student I know once asked me if I meet all my students at my office in the church. I told her most of the time, I do. Unless I know I’ll be at another convenient spot. She confessed feeling guilty at not being to mass in some time. Her family really didn’t prioritize it and she kind of fell into the same lack of practice.

The gospel today would call me not to beat this person up for their lack of practice but rather to consider what would most help them. I simply invited her to mass and told her the times of the services and that she would always be welcome. I had to consider that she’s more than a “lapsed Catholic”, rather she’s someone who wants to reconnect with God but might actually be too ashamed or embarrassed to do so. It would have been easier for me to say “no worries” and to just let it go, but I decided to make the invitation and I think it was received well because it led to 3 more questions about religion.

Our church is an evangelization organization. What do people really need? Why do people seek us from time to time and how do we move them to be closer to God.

It seems to me that an “enemy” might actually not be someone who is hostile but rather someone who is trapped and they need us to go to a place where we’d much rather not go. They’re someone on the other side who hopes that we might just reach a bit beyond our usual comfort zone. Perhaps a place of asking forgiveness and breaking the cycle of hatred and division? Perhaps a place of welcoming instead of shaming? Perhaps a place of peace instead of confusion and chaos? Perhaps a place of feeding instead of ignoring?

Where are you most called and to whom? Who is your enemy and how might you try just a bit to re-encounter them into your life, to change everything you’ve come to know about them and bring them into wholeness once again?

The 3rd Week: Stay with Him

In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius the third week of the exercises are focused on the transformative experience of the cross. We reflect directly on the experience of the cross in our lives and often meditate imaginatively on Calvary.

A friend of mine once felt like he was stuck in the third week on his long retreat (the 30 day version–not for wusses). He said to me “He’s got to come off the cross sometime.”

And perhaps therein lies the deep challenge. Can we face our own cross knowing that the resurrection is surely to follow? Do we have hope that God will make all things new even when disastrous things happen?

I didn’t say this to him back when he mentioned that but I was reflecting on this today in my own personal prayer time and I thought to myself that Jesus didn’t come off the cross–though he very well could’ve. It must have been excruciating for His mother and the other Marys, Magdalene and Mary, the wife of Clopas, along with the beloved disciple to watch.

And when it was all over…he was taken down at the request of Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple and Nicodemus came to help anoint the body. Could any of us have had the guts to stay with Jesus then? Could we have removed the nails and let his dead body slink over our back and then place that body into the arms of his sorrowful mother. Could we have taken Mary’s place and become the pieta? Could we have dared to have that kind of faith.

Could we stay with Him and faced that kind of horror–the horror of seeing God’s death and yet keeping the paradoxical faith that God is somehow still alive as well?

In my imagination I imagine being one of those who carries Jesus down from the cross. I sit with him in a momentary lifelessness, wondering if after this experience I can have the faith to believe that He will rise on the 3rd day as He said?

In my own life, do I also have a similar question of faith? When all seems darkest, do I believe that Jesus will make a way out of no way?

We must stay with Him in this “third week experience” and in doing so, might we find the strength to believe? Can we see beyond the blood of the cross to find the wounded one alive again? Can we too rise from our wounds and believe that this experience is just a foreshadow of what God will also do for each one of us?

Can we hold a dead God in our arms and still believe that all will be well?

Facing the cross of Calvary enables each of us to see Jesus in a new way that ultimately provides us with the faith to get past our own crosses in our lives. It’s scary to look straight ahead at the cross and sometimes we might choose to look left and right in fear–but it is there we see Mary, who held Jesus lifeless, and believed anyway.

Do we have people in our lives who restore our faith? Who believe despite the odds mounting against them? Do we know those who have faced the death of loved ones but who can still rejoice in the resurrection despite their very real sadness–or even anger?

Staying with Him keeps things real. We cannot ignore the cross, for to do so also denies the resurrection. Our God understands our suffering and that is a beautiful thing for us to behold.

Nobody likes to suffer. If we don’t we never taste the rewards of growth. of learning, of being renewed. We might certainly be worse off if it were not for the cross.

We need the courage to stay with him, hold Him in our arms and believe.

Do We Wish to Leave? A Reflection on Sunday’s Readings 8/26

Many people leave the Catholic Church for a variety of reasons–in fact there are even some good ones. And that saddens me, our church, a human institution rife with flaws is sometimes not the best place.

But what saddens me more–is that people even within the church leave as well. They leave behind some of the sayings of Jesus that are too hard for them to handle. Sometimes don’t we just walk out of the church after Sunday mass and don’t pay a single bit of attention to where God has called us?

And maybe there’s something wrong with all of us regular churchgoers–because we don’t talk enough about how God is all we need. Maybe we don’t even believe that God could satisfy all our desires despite our commitment to a church community?

Can we really believe that God can be all that we need? It seems that many of the early followers had a hard time believing that.

Jesus even says that he’ll be our food, meaning that God’s boundless love for us can satisfy all our desires. It doesn’t mean that we’ll never have to eat again or that starving people only need to go to mass and that their problems will be over. What it does mean is that God always satisfies even in the face of struggle and discomfort. I saw this first hand in Nicaragua and in Kentucky where poverty is rampant. People lived in the garbage dump called Chureca, just a stone’s throw from Managua. Desperate people clinging to life and happy to get a few staples from us to tide them over. But it was our presence to them that they loved the most. After all, they are forgotten people. In Kentucky, it was more of the same. People happy to get groceries and other items from the local food pantry, but even happier to engage in conversation with those of us who worked as volunteers for the day.

The poor are often left out and Jesus understood that intimately. From a poor town Himself, Jesus took on the poor’s likeness and challenged the establishment not to forget them. In the polite society of the rich, hanging out with poor folks was akin to ritual impurity. I often say we’re not so different because many of us wouldn’t be caught dead eating with the homeless on the street–or even talking with them. So when Jesus says that all people will eat his flesh and drink his blood that was even more disgusting to them–never mind that all would be asked to do this, not merely the rich–who were often looked upon as God’s chosen people at the time. Poverty indeed was a curse.

And instead Jesus invites all. Come and eat my flesh and drink my blood. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

And it’s all too hard for many. So they do what most people do when they get overwhelmed by a challenging situation:

They give up and walk away, back to their comfy lives where these challenges do not bother them. They can’t comfort the afflicted so they choose to be the comforted themselves and hope to not be afflicted.

And when these people walk away, Jesus asks His disciples: “Do you, too wish to leave?”

And Peter has the line of the year. My loose translation is something like this:

“Where could we go? You’ve scared everyone else away! And YOU, after all, have the words of eternal life!”

I can hear the disciples laughing. And then Peter adds that in case Jesus didn’t notice it, they’ve been following Him and are convinced that He is the Messiah. So why would they go anywhere else? And even if they did it’s not like people are going to roll the rad carpet out anyway now after Jesus had some pretty hard words for them to hear. Some folks just might not have been ready to hear what God was asking of them.

And the question that remains then is for us. Do we too want to leave? Can we stand with the poor and know that God can change our hearts to help change their situation–so that desperate people will stop doing desperate things?

Where might God be calling you today–to have your heart stretch a bit farther than you think it can? We’re all challenged by time. There’s only so many hours in the day and we have so many responsibilities. Might we as Catholics, intentionally set some time apart even once a month to dedicate some time for those less fortunate than ourselves? I know sometimes I fill up my empty spaces of free time with things that are less than satisfying for me, but are still tempting nonetheless. Bad habits are hard to break.

But maybe that’s why we are here! We’re here because we know that we want just a bit more out of life than what we often think will satisfy us. And that God’s example of giving us all of Himself from this altar is the example that we need to learn from. Can we become what we receive and stretch ourselves farther than we think we can–even to the least of those in society: the hungry, the homeless, the unborn, the forgotten–or are they indeed too hard to give ourselves to?

Christ calls us to become what we receive here from this altar. And when we do others might find us just a bit odd. After all, at this university Community Service is often used as a punishment. We get to serve the poor because we got caught drinking in the dry dorm, or speeding, or violating one of 100 different campus directives.

But Jesus calls us to say that we are servants by design. Called to be with the poor always–not as punishment–but as human beings who care for each other.

May you come to believe that Jesus is calling you to somewhere or someone this semester—to become Christ for them.

And in so doing, may you not just become what you receive–but may you realize that you are satisfied by simply becoming all that God calls you to be.

Holding on to a Taxing Agenda

Today’s Gospel gives us a bit to chew on from Matthew

When they came to Capernaum,
the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said,
“Does not your teacher pay the temple tax?”
“Yes,” he said.
When he came into the house, before he had time to speak,
Jesus asked him, “What is your opinion, Simon?
From whom do the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax?
From their subjects or from foreigners?”
When he said, “From foreigners,” Jesus said to him,
“Then the subjects are exempt.
But that we may not offend them, go to the sea, drop in a hook,
and take the first fish that comes up.
Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax.
Give that to them for me and for you.”

What is the tax that people had to pay. Scholars debate this but it may be a punitive tax placed on the Jews to support either the Roman God’s temple or maybe a rabbinical school built on the backs of the poor.

Jesus seems to rail against this idea at first but then cooler heads prevail. This was probably an issue that his followers faced long after the Ascension and Matthew’s readers may have been familiar with this.

But what does it mean for us? The past few days I’ve been mulling over the hatred that seems to exist in our modern culture. Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals, etc. As an old teacher I know used to say about Racism: “Whites hate blacks, the blacks hate the Puerto Ricans, the Puerto Ricans hate the Mexicans, the Mexicans hate someone else! It never ends!”

Jesus seems to say that not paying the tax is more of a bother because of what will come of it than the burden of paying the tax. Easy for him to say, he can create money in the belly of a fish! But there seems to be some wisdom in this. We need to be shrewd sometimes and pick our battles and try not to make enemies at first glance. There’s enough fighting in the world. Sometimes it’s just easier to pay the guy off and call it a day.

I find this often comes into my mind when I deal with those whom I disagree with. Sometimes it’s just easier to let them have their opinion and not worry about having them see the wisdom that I espouse to. They’ve heard me but don’t have to accept my opinion. It will be easier knowing how we see each other, for sure, but conversion might not be necessary–in fact, it might prevent any kind of reconciliation.

Today let’s look for the coin in the fish’s mouth that can bring us together and bring peace. Where might we need to sink our lines in order to keep people talking with each other just a bit longer before all hell breaks loose in a fight. That one little coin might just be enough to prevent a whole lot of heartache.

And that is bound to be worth it.

God always uses what is right at hand for us. In this case, fish are always attracted by shiny objects (like a hook, in this case a coin), perhaps Jesus knew where there was a coin that nobody was using and I’m sure it brought much relief to the fish to have it dislodged from it’s insides–even with the pain of the hook. Maybe Peter threw him back too? What do we have at our disposal that allows us to diffuse those who might even be trying to cheat us? What keeps us in conversation with little expense to us? Where might we be called to relieve a bit of pain from one of God’s creatures so that we might live a bit more harmoniously with others and not end up in a fight.

It may very well be an opportunity for us to listen carefully to the needs of those who we think might not have our best interests at heart. So we might see something good in them–or something that’s not as big of a deal to us as we thought. I know today, I found much relief in letting go of a big project so that I can pay better attention to other relationships in my life and my ministry. And that wasn’t that hard to do. In fact it was freeing.

What price might we pay for that freedom? Sometimes it seems the price we try to pay is what keeps us enslaved by our own bigotry, hatred, and inflexibilities. As the weeks move forward, perhaps we’d be better served by simply paying a bit of attention to what we really need, as opposed to what we think we want.

Now if we could only get congress to see it this way….

Your Pearl of Great Price

Warren Eckstein, the world famous pet expert, was once complaining to me about something that he didn’t like that was going on at the radio station we worked at together. He suddenly stopped himself mid-sentence…

“I should stop complaining. I could be digging ditches somewhere.”

This past weekend my colleague, Bonnie, who acts with me at the simulation center, made an astounding remark. We were both a bit sleepy on an early morning assignment and Bonnie said:

“You know, there are days I don’t want to go to dance class. But I then start to think how fortunate I am to be living in the United States and that I have the opportunity to go to dance class. Because if I were living somewhere else, I’d still be a dancer. I just wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Both Warren and Bonnie are people who make their living by engaging their passion. Warren’s been doing it for decades and Bonnie is just in the springtime of her career. But they both have made a decision to live for what keeps them passionate. Warren can’t imagine a life without animals and Bonnie couldn’t imagine not dancing or acting.

They found their pearl of great price and despite struggle they can’t imagine parting with it. To do so would negate an integral part of themselves, the way they have chosen to express their joy to the world.

I suppose I feel the same way about ministry. And it took me a long time to be able to say that.

Because you see many of us bury the pearl of great price that we find. For me, I was having all these rich experiences in retreat work and in parish life as a volunteer. I just never thought it was worth the risk to go into ministry full-time. Strangely enough, my media prowess didn’t come into full force until I made that switch to ministry.

My upcoming book, Loving Work, is about a month away from press. And we discuss this very topic, the subject of today’s Gospel parable from Jesus. I found this line interesting:

“The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field,
which a person finds and hides again,
and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

Well, sure! Of course the person does that. But what of the person who buried it to begin with? Why would he bury something so precious? Or perhaps it wasn’t so precious to him or her after all?

A lot of people thought that my great pearl was working in New York City radio. It was fun, to be sure. I was good at it, certainly. But I didn’t start setting the world on fire until I made a switch to ministry. Even later in my ministry career I had to realize that my passion is being a pastoral person and not a media guru. I use media now, for a pastoral means and not for media’s sake (or profit’s sake, for that matter).

What might your pearl of great price be? For many, it just might be right under their nose. We tend to complain about our jobs, our relationships, and a whole lot more. But deep down, haven’t some of us just forgotten how much we love the people and the careers that we have already? Where did we first stoke that passion? How might we recapture it now?

Or is something else beckoning, that treasure that we’ve hidden safely away and that we might be afraid to dig up again? For to do so would require risk on our part and perhaps a bit of painful change. I remember thinking that I wasted time by staying in my radio career so long. But I also think that radio prepared me for so much and I made so many great friends and colleagues and have some really rich stories and experiences now from those years. (Many in my new book, by the way).

What is your pearl? Where might God be calling you? Are you too frightened to follow that call? What else prevents you from doing so?

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, my favorite saint. I leave you today with his words:

“Few souls understand what God would accomplish in them if they were to abandon themselves unreservedly to Him and if they were to allow His grace to mold them accordingly.”


The Rainbow Connection

From Niagara Falls yesterday, a rainbow followed us!

God said: This is the sign of the covenant that I am making between me and you and every living creature with you for all ages to come:
I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds,
I will remember my covenant between me and you and every living creature—every mortal being—so that the waters will never again become a flood to destroy every mortal being.
When the bow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature—every mortal being that is on earth.
– Genesis, Chapter 9

And THAT…kinda reminds me of a song…