Dear Pencil Preaching readers: I will be out of the office until June 24, when Pencil Preaching will resume. Thanks for your support this past year. It is good to share the joy of the Gospel.
"Barnabas was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith" (Acts 11:24).
Biblical names are back on the baby name lists, including Noah, Jacob and Elijah, but you don't often meet a Barnabas. This stalwart Jewish Christian was the one who went and found Saul of Tarsus after his conversion and introduced him to a skeptical, fearful faith community in Antioch. Barnabas and Paul (his new name) became partners in the mission to the gentiles. Without Barnabas, who knows how things might have gone.
Amid the super stars of Christianity, the apostles and saints, there are countless others in the often anonymous ranks of believers who helped the early church grow. Paul lists many of them in his letters -- men and women who accompanied him, preached the Gospel, founded and presided over house churches in the first communities established in the Mediterranean basin, from Antioch to Rome itself.
We are the church, all of us. And we are its main evangelizers and community builders. Wherever two or three are gathered together in faith and prayer, Jesus is with us, the Holy Spirit animating us to be the body of Christ in the world.
Today’s Gospel emphasizes the central work of the church, to demonstrate and bring the grace of forgiveness and reconciliation to our fractious world. Whenever a believer reconciles with a brother or sister, whenever a Christian helps facilitate peace where there has been conflict, the Gospel is preached.
Pope Francis has invited us all to enter a Holy Year of Mercy. It is a time of Jubilee, full amnesty within the church, everyone off the hook, every wounded sinner invited through the doors of Mercy, restored and renewed by God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. How much we need this, especially those of us who have been so long divided within the church over theological and ideological differences. It is time to kiss and make up, come back together at the Table of Life.
Today I pause to wish a happy feast day to Barnabas Senecal, former abbot at the Benedictine Community in Atchison, Kansas, and a longtime contributor of his poetry and photographs to Celebration magazine. Everything said in Acts about St. Barnabas is true for Abbot Barnabas, a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.
"Your light must shine before others" (Matt 5:15).
The expression, "He won't take no for an answer," describes determination. If only more people were that persistent! How many worthwhile endeavors fold at the first sign of resistance or lack of approval?
A far greater phenomenon is the number of lives put on the hold by the experience that he or she" wouldn't take yes for an answer." Opportunities appear but go unexplored. Doors stand wide open but no one goes through them. No amount of encouragement or affirmation can move someone forward who is afraid to commit, to decide or risk making a mistake.
In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells the community that Jesus was God’s “Yes.” Filled with confidence and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we should go forward into life.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that they are salt and light. Salt that loses its savor or light hidden under a bushel basket accomplishes nothing and does not reveal the source of every gift, which is God’s glory living in us.
In another lifetime, the director of student brothers asked each brother to pick a ministry for the summer. A number of brothers did not hand in the form. When asked, one said, “I just want to do whatever you tell me to do.” The director harrumphed and shot back, “ I told you to fill out the form!”
We perhaps never feel the weight of our own lives until we are forced to make a decision. No one can decide for us. Blind obedience is no virtue if it produces passivity and avoidance of responsibility masquerading as humility.
Discipleship is about daring to shine, using all our gifts fully, risking rejection and misunderstanding to be ourselves. Only then does God have something to work with, someone willing to step beyond their fears and doubts to be Christ for others, fully alive and present to the world.
"Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven" (Matt 511).
Jesus, like Moses, goes up the mountain, sits down to indicate that what he is about to say is official teaching, then delivers the Beatitudes. In contrast to the Ten Commandments, the basis for the Law, Jesus proposes eight paradoxes that describe a community poised to live between this world and the world to come.
The Beatitudes describe those whose longing, sincerity, vulnerability, suffering and determination are like the lead lines tossed from a foundering vessel onto the far shore of a new land. Disciples cast their imaginations into God's future, then live as though it were already here. They are early indicators and incubators and facilitators of the world God is bringing to birth in them and through them.
Blessed are you when you are poor, simple, grieving, longing for justice, mercy, purity of heart and peace. Though the world will resist and persecute you for these delusions and intrusions on its reality, God's dream will take hold and grow in you. You will be filled with a happiness the world cannot give.
The kingdom of heaven is not beyond this world but in the world, within you and among you. It is the treasure hidden in the field waiting to be uncovered, the pearl of great price waiting for the one who will sell everything to possess it. Have eyes to see and ears to hear, and you will live each day in God's will -- for you and for the world.
This is the joy of the Gospel.
“Where do you want us to go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” (Mark 14:12).
Gandhi once said that if God were to enter a hungry world, it would be as food.
As Christians we believe that God did enter the world in Jesus, the Bread of Life. The Eucharist is our encounter with Jesus, who alone can satisfy all our hungers. Receiving Communion is the single most important act of faith we perform, for when we say “Amen” to the bread and the cup, we are in intimate union with the mystery of God.
Yet ritual assent in Communion is only a visible sign of the invisible reality of our union with one another as members of the Body of Christ. Sunday Mass is incomplete without our response to one another in love. We mock the Eucharist if we do not recognize our commitment to our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we limit the full promise of God as food to the hungry if we horde the mystery within the circle of Catholics, Christians or other believers. God’s love encompasses the whole of creation.
The Masses I have been privileged to attend at the local Catholic Worker House over the years have made the mystery transparent. The circle of worship focuses on the small table used to hold the bread in the communal meal that earlier served the guests. The readings are proclaimed and shared in a dialogue homily that is itself the breaking of the Word as nourishment and as the "real presence" of Jesus. The community formed around the table is committed to expressing the mystery of Jesus among the poor and hungry.
I have never been bored at one of these Eucharists. I have never glanced at my watch, eager to get it over with so I could get back to my real life. I have never left the table hungry or without a deeper sense of the mystery reflected in the faces of those gathered there. The suffering of Christ is readily visible in the guest community, but so is the resurrection, our pledge of future glory in God’s kingdom, both here and not yet here.
We are continually asking Jesus, “Where do you want us to prepare the Eucharist for you?” His answer is, “Here, in the midst of your lives, in your churches, your workplaces, in the streets and especially at the margins of society, where the mystery of God intensifies and cries out for justice and love.”
Pray for an increase in faith as you receive Communion on this Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Be prepared to be taken deeper into the mystery of God in the world. How privilege we are to be invited to the Table of the Lord.
"The great crowd heard this with delight" (Mark 12:37).
Today’s short Gospel could seem like an esoteric quarrel among scholars about the lineage of the Messiah. But according to Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man, Orbis, 1991), Mark 12:35-37 signals a decisive split between Jesus and the scribes. They insisted that because the Christ was the son of David, restoration the Davidic monarchy and the Temple state was God’s promise to Israel.
Jesus argues that because the Christ is Lord over David, the coming of God’s kingdom was not about the myth of Davidic restoration but the good news of peace and justice, especially for the poor and outcasts shunned by the establishment. Jesus’ preaching is a direct challenge to the status quo, a corrupt system of wealth and power claiming divine approval.
We begin to see just how radical Jesus was in his attack on the old ideology and why he had to be discredited and destroyed. He was a danger to the system, a terrorist. There is no Gospel lite or soft version about piety, love and brotherhood in the revolution Jesus preached. The vision he carried to the cross was of the transformation of all social, political and economic systems by God’s plan for justice and right relationships in a sinful world.
Discipleship is the journey from complicity and compromise to union with Jesus in his death on the cross to advance the kingdom of God. What our individual roles might be in that revolution of mind, heart and action is revealed to each of us in prayer and fasting. But there is no other future worth pursuing if we believe that Jesus is the Christ, Lord and Messiah.
"Which is the first of all the commandments?" (Mark 12:28).
What is the first commandment in your life? There can be many. For some, success drives every decision they make. For others, loyalty to family or group defines their daily actions. Or personal honor, or finding approval and avoiding rejection are the red thread that runs through their life stories. This makes sense, for these commandments flow from the primal instinct to survive, to compete, to win.
Jesus, as a faithful Jew, based his entire life and identity on the Great Commandment to love God first and foremost, mind, heart, soul and body, and then to love others as he loved himself. We might say that this was the only commandment he needed, for in keeping it he kept every other law. His life path was based on this simple but radical guide.
His relationship with God and neighbor was also at the heart of his preaching, his acts of healing and mercy, and even the confrontation with official religion that led to his death on the cross. If we love, we will be just, compassionate and truthful. If we put God first, we will never compromise God's will for us as it unfolds in the circumstances of our lives, even if we must sacrifice ourselves for doing what is right in all our relationships.
Jesus lived in the peace and joy of obedience to the commandment of love. Discipleship is our school for learning how to do the same. It is no small challenge to place this commandment ahead of other, deeply imprinted and ego-centered instincts for personal survival, success, approval and loyalty. But if we commit to this, we will know our true selves in the image and likeness of God, who made us to love and be loved.
"God is not God of the dead but of the living" (Mark 12:27).
His critics take turns trying to bring Jesus down. Yesterday it was the Pharisees and Herodians (an unholy alliance) testing him on taxes to Caesar. Today it is the Sadducees, the ruling conservatives who did not believe in resurrection, testing Jesus about who will be husband in heaven to a woman who had married seven brothers.
In both cases, Jesus forces his interlocutors deeper than they intended to go into the challenges of believing in the living God. The absurd and artificial scenario about marriage and the importance of progeny as a kind of immortality elicits Jesus' rebuke: "Are you not misled because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?"
Then Jesus says something that resonates with some our own debates over the nature of marriage and procreation. He distinguishes both as important to earthly life but simply not needed in eternity, where life is forever. Resurrection transforms us and transcends sexuality and the need to procreate.
This is a profound mystery. Theology has yet to really explore Paul’s insight that in the risen Christ there is neither male nor female. Nor will there be straight or gay or transgender, but the fullness of our human identity and capacity to love. We know nothing of Jesus’ sexuality, but so much about his boundless capacity for friendship and love for everyone. Isn’t this a window into what we ourselves will be like in our risen selves?
Questions about gender and sex pass forward into the challenges of holiness and love. Human life will blossom into friendship with God and one another. What we intuit now as communion in the body of Christ is our life in glory. Sexual longing is only a glimpse of the intimacy we will enjoy with everyone in heaven. Procreation foreshadows the expanding circle of divine love that will gather the entire universe into one, new creation.
To miss all of this to protect their small-minded ideology was the mistake Jesus rebuked the Sadducees for. Your God is too small, your hopes too contained and your hearts too constricted. God is the God of the living, so get beyond your self-righteous ignorance and absurd quarreling and join the circle of life.
"Whose image and inscription is this?" (Mark 12:16).
Jesus' famous words about giving to Caesar and to God have been the starting point for endless debates about the separation of the church and state, the obligations Christians have to civil society and religion, the tensions inherent in paying taxes to fund war, living in the world and keeping a spiritual focus, or just about the ethics of money. God or Caesar? Just what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?
The setting for the original question was a deliberate trap set by the Pharisees and the Herodians to get Jesus in trouble with either his Jewish followers who hated the Roman occupation or with the Roman authorities, always alert to potential troublemakers.
It was a clever ploy, but Jesus' response went much deeper than the political and religious dilemmas that defined life in Palestine at the time.
Jesus asks to see the Roman coin used to pay taxes. It is readily produced by one of his critics, exposing their complicity in the system. Jesus' answer was simple: If you use the system, pay. But then he goes to the heart of the dilemma. Whose image do you define yourself by? The image on the coin is that of Caesar, the supreme ruler of the world. Can this image supersede the essential image and likeness of God, absolute creator of everything? It is this deeper imprint that determines who we are and why we are in the world. Even Caesar is subject to this absolute reality.
So go figure. We carry the dilemma into our daily lives and dealings. We benefit from all the interlocking secular systems that hold the world of commerce and civil society together. We belong to our banks as much as we do to our churches for the capacity to function. The challenge is to remember who we really are and to whom we must give an accounting.
The image we prize most will decide who we are and become. To bear the family resemblance of God is our ultimate reality and our guiding principle. Where there is a conflict, toss a coin. God is on both sides and owns everything.
“Jesus began to speak to them in parables” (Matt 12:1).
We begin the Book of Tobit in today’s readings, a marvelous story about true love and healing. Composed in the 5th century B.C.E., it shows the influence between biblical literature and theater in the ancient Greek world. Tobit is threatened for burying a fellow Jew in Nineveh during the exile, just as Antigone defies the authorities by burying her brother in Sophocles’ play named after this heroine, composed around the same time.
Tobit’s piety, like another famous figure named Job, wins him little favor, and he is blinded by bird droppings before the second part of the story unfolds, the sending of his son Tobias to marry a kinswoman named Sarah, whose six previous husbands have been murdered on their wedding night by a jealous demon.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the provocative parable of the greedy tenants at a vineyard who reject the owner’s claims on the produce, abusing messengers and finally killing his son. It is an allegory of Jesus’ own rejection by the religious leaders in Jerusalem. It ends with the image of the cornerstone of the building being rejected by the builders.
Both readings illustrate one of the key functions of the Bible to form our imaginations and faith. God knows human affairs and in the end justice prevails, virtue is rewarded and evil is defeated. As evidenced by the role our overheated media play in our contemporary culture, storytelling is at the heart of our values.
But film, television and the Internet rarely match the power of ancient stories like the ones in today’s Lectionary. Instead they often just reinforce stereotypes, stir up fear and hatred, trivialize sexuality and distort human dignity, besides being just hokey and formulaic. To be formed by the Word of God is a dynamic and indispensable encounter that counteracts that influence as it sets our priorities and clarifies our values.
In both cases, formation is an invisible process. Just as we are what we eat, we become what we watch, so caution is always warranted, especially for the young.