Revolution

"Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt 10:39).

The pyramid is associated with ancient Egypt, but the shape has come to describe any system of governance, management or economic control in which resources drawn from the broad base are focused on the benefit of the narrow top. The pyramid reflected perfectly the concentration of power Pharaoh held over his subjects, extracting wealth and labor from the bottom to create a luxurious world above for a hierarchy of royalty and its high priests. In a pyramidal society, the rich literally live on the backs of the poor.

The story of Israel continues in the Book of Exodus, when a leadership that knew nothing of Joseph comes to power. To preserve itself, the new regime subjugates the fast growing Hebrew population, enslaving its men to build monuments and attempting to control the birthrate of its women by imposing infanticide for all male offspring. History has often recorded this same anxiety by the upper classes over demographics that leads to policies of immigration and birth control, abortion and sterilization. In God’s plan, however, what Pharaoh commands only sets the stage for the Exodus, the birth of the Hebrew nation in freedom, whose destiny will prove universal and eternal.

In Today’s Gospel, Jesus announces a revolutionary new way to be human. Each individual is assigned a unique dignity and identity that comes from God, and obedience to that inner self must supersede any other loyalty — to system, nation, tribe and even family. Centuries later, Shakespeare would hint at this new moral center when he wrote “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man" (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2). For Jesus, the authentic self is the one who reveals the image and likeness of God, and is therefore “for others.” Self preservation leads to loss, whereas self-surrender in love and service to others leads to life.

Such authentic individuals, obedient to God from the inside out, mean trouble for any system that demands total conformity. The Second Vatican Council, when it proposed the reform of its liturgical life, set in motion a revolution of attitude and response when it called every baptized member to full conscious, active participation in the life and worship of the church. In December of 1963, with the promulgation of the document of the liturgy, pyramids crumbled and fell. Fifty years later we are still trying to grasp the implications of this revolution.

Who Is My Neighbor?

“Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

We all know the warning not to touch a downed power line. The same might be said about addressing an exposed nerve. For millions of churchgoers this Sunday morning, the opportunity will be there to hear a homily about, struggle with and pray over the universal question posed by Jesus in today’s Gospel story of the Good Samaritan: “Who is my neighbor?” We awake as a nation to news of the verdict in the tragic case of a black teen shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in a gated community in Florida last February. The legal outcome will not begin to encompass the larger social, racial and cultural forces that have converged on the fateful encounter. Yet the Gospel story pulls us into a difficult and relevant examination of how deeply divided we are as communities and human beings, and where to go from here.

Jesus is responding to a lawyer who wants to know the limits of his obligation to love others. "Just who is my neighbor?" he asks. The story Jesus tells is shocking in two respects. First, the lawyer assumes the role of the benefactor to a neighbor in need. He expects Jesus to challenge him to be the compassionate hero of the story. Instead, Jesus invites him to imagine himself as the victim of violence and the failure of his own people to come to his aid. Second, the one who stops to help is his worst enemy, an outsider, the last person on earth he might consider a neighbor. The reversal of roles and surprise response of an enemy turns the lawyer’s question upside down and makes limitless love, not legal limits, the measure of his obligation to others in need. The audience is stunned by the unconditional demands of love that erase all boundaries, racial and religious loyalties. The only mindset must be compassion, openness to others, a willingness to respond to others as we would want them to respond to us if we were in need.

This disturbing message will meet the headlines this morning in a society in which neighborhoods, neighbors and even churches have already been defined by class, money, race and culture. How it will resonate, and whether it will confront and convert or harden and separate hearts is the work of grace and a matter of how much we dare let the Word come to us in all its power.

Sparrow

“Do not be afraid, for you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matt 10:31).

What is a sparrow worth? The tiny birds must have been ubiquitous in Jesus’ time and place, gathering in the trees and bushes, bursting forth in spirals against the sky before a summer storm, or invading the gardens and fields in search of seed. Psalm 84, in praise of the temple, says that even the sparrow finds a home there. Jesus compares the sparrow, which sells two for a penny, to a person anxious about their well-being. He reassures them that if the tiny bird is within God’s providence, how much more each of us?

Jesus was not sentimental in his regard for nature, knowing that the lilies of the fields faded in the summer heat and sparrows lived short fragile lives at best. The beauty of wild flowers and the majestic flight of birds entered his preaching as examples of God’s extravagant love for creation. If these passing gifts are so wonderful, how much greater is the gift of consciousness and free will lavished on human beings who are able to respond to God’s largesse by lifting their eyes to heaven in praise?

Jesus’ mention of sparrows survives in the Gospels, a reminder to us of our own fragile beauty, but also of the unique invitation inherent in our freedom to say yes each day to the gift of life. The wonder of a sparrow in flight and in song is its perfect conformity God’s will and purpose. The wonder of our lives is in our daily effort to discern God’s will for us as co-creators and protectors of the earth and its many inhabitants. All are worthy of our gratitude and providential care.

Patience

“ … do not worry …” (Matt 10:19).

As stories go, the Joseph saga is an opera with giant sets and a full orchestra, poignant arias backed by roaring choruses. In the final scene (Gen 46:28-30), Joseph is reunited with his aged father, Jacob, who thought he would never see his favorite son again. The drama is too large for one production, and its profound themes spill over into a sequel that will advance salvation history to its darkest hour, then triumph. A beloved son seemed lost, but it was to take the nation into slavery so God could rescue his people in an exodus that would define the covenant forever.

So the pattern is set: When God promises something, suffering and tension will assail that promise to the point of despair in order to deepen faith before the gift is given. Slavery prepares for liberation; exile and destruction will purify the promise and lead to restoration; persecution will heighten longing for a savior. In the next dispensation, the rejection and death of Jesus will recapitulate the entire story of exodus and exile to reveal God’s original promise of shared life with humanity. From Adam to Jesus to us, a divine destiny and freedom from sin are given freely.

The pattern is repeated in every believer’s life. Our small faith journey produces so little and we enter the shadow of death asking if God is really there. The sweep of the larger story makes us feel miniscule and helpless. It is in this place of surrender, patience and humility that the gift is given. Just when we thought all was lost and our efforts had been in vain, God whispers the words that long ago reassured Jacob: “Not only will I go down with you down into suffering, but I will also bring you back.”

The suffering of so many faithful servants in today’s church, lives and careers lost to the delays, revisions and resistance to reforms promised by Vatican II, are just now, 50 years later, beginning to bear fruit. No act of faith, however anonymous, will be lost or forgotten. Faith is about trusting this story more than any other, even when its patterns carry us into suffering and loss. The covenant holds us secure because love never fails and our names are written in the book of life.

Shalom

“I am your brother Joseph” (Gen 45:3).

The story of Joseph, betrayed and abandoned by his own brothers into Egypt, only to be revealed later as their savior in time of famine, provided poignant and prophetic imagery later applied by the Gospel writers to Jesus. He, too, was betrayed and abandoned by his own disciples, suffering death on the cross. But he reappears, saying to them, “Peace be with you,” and explains how necessary it was that he suffer in order to fulfill the Law and Prophets. He has gone ahead of them to confront death so that they might have eternal life.

The gift of peace encompasses all other gifts. Shalom, the Hebrew greeting for peace, means total well-being and restoration to right relationship with everyone. In today’s Gospel (Matt 10:7-15), Jesus sends his disciples out to the nearby towns to proclaim the good news of God’s shalom. Wherever they are welcomed, the full effects of peace are experienced: physical healing, reconciliation, freedom from contrary spirits and even resurrection from the dead. As disciples ourselves, we might imagine today the difference our entry into any situation might make if we approached it conscious that we are first of all bringing shalom. “Peace be to this place and everyone here.”

Today is the feast of St. Benedict, whose monasteries are famous for their hospitality. It is our first gift to others, to welcome them, listen to them and nourish them in whatever way we can.

The Twelve

“It was Joseph, as governor, who dispensed grain to all the people” (Gen 42:6).

The story of Joseph answers the question of how the Hebrews found themselves in Egypt. It is the last of the great stories in biblical prehistory, written backwards to explain subsequent events that will fulfill earlier promises and project the future destiny of the Chosen People. We see this process at work in the selection of 12 apostles by Jesus (Matt 10:1-7) to mirror the 12 sons of Israel (formerly known as Jacob), whose names identify the 12 tribes that federate under King Saul. It is a sweeping tale that sets the stage in salvation history for the coming of the Messiah, a son of David (of the house of Judah), born in Bethlehem.

As history goes, the winners are defined by their enemies. So Egypt, a great nation in turmoil today over how to mix religion and governance, has had to play the biblical role of villain when, in fact, it gave Israel its greatest leader in Moses, in all likelihood an Egyptian prince, and, in today’s Genesis reading, Joseph, a rejected son of Israel who becomes regent in Egypt and saves the Hebrews during a time of famine so the story can continue.

Jesus called a community around him to experience the fulfillment of the great Exodus event that founded the nation. That divine rescue from slavery presaged the even greater, universal gift of salvation, with Jesus leading humanity through the exodus of death into the promised land of risen life. The 12 apostles emerge in the Gospels as fulfilling the ancient promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that God’s covenant would be extended and preached to the ends of the earth in every age. They symbolize all of us as evangelists. God keeps promises. We have been blessed to be part of the mystery of history, called to share fully in the story of the redemption of the world.

Grappling with God

“Then someone wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Gen 32:25)

The story in Gen 32:24-32 of Jacob wrestling through the night with the mysterious stranger is part of the mythical foundation for Judaeo-Christianity that has been endlessly mined for meaning by biblical scholars, preachers and theologians, but also by writers and artists and psychologists. Jacob begins his life wrestling in the womb with his brother Esau, who is born first but with his rival seizing him by the heel. Jacob later conspires with their mother Rebekah to steal the elder son’s blessing by deceiving blind Isaac, thus diverting God’s promise from the firstborn to his younger brother in one of many odd and even shocking twists within biblical genealogy. God invites humans to bargain, wrestle and argue with him as the divine plan unfolds within human hopes, fears, desires and sinfulness.

As music, the story would be more jazz than symphony; there is no score, just different instruments collaborating to lay down the beat and the bass rhythms, inviting thematic melodies played as solos or in harmony, riffs and runs advancing the music or circling back, everyone listening, sometimes leading, other times following. The result is achieved with rules and spontaneity, tradition yielding to fresh directions and surprising creativity. God’s word becomes flesh in astonishing ways.

Like jazz that embraces the midnight hour, night wrestling is life’s quintessential crisis. Anyone who has had to make a life-changing decision or struggled to accept some terrible loss can testify to this. The perfect partner is ourself, which explains why the outcome is almost always a draw, with wrenching dislocations, wounds, blessings and new names for the reality that emerges as the dawn breaks. If the new self is our authentic future, we will see the face of God, whose image and likeness is the Christ within us. Every lesser rival must yield to this blessed reality.

Jesus models the struggle for us. All our theology can be reduced to an encounter with him, for in him we see ourselves as God intended us to be. This makes our night wrestling sacred, any suffering we endure a sign that our real self is overcoming the distortions and deceptions that have kept us from engaging the Lover who called us into being and has destined us for eternal friendship. Out of the darkest night the sun rises and a new day begins. Thanks be to God.

Jacob's Ladder

“He took the little girl by the hand and she arose” (Matt 9:26).

The theme of heaven and earth coming together begins in Genesis, when God expresses concern that Adam and Eve might become “one of us” if they eat of the tree of life. Later, the human ambition to create a tower that will reach up to heaven is thwarted. Even though God has risked the divine identity by sharing the divine image and likeness with humanity, divine prerogatives are withheld. But it is gradually revealed as the red thread of salvation history that God intends to share the fullness of life with creation.

The first intimation of the incarnation occurs in today’s reading from Genesis 28, in which Jacob, fresh from receiving Isaac’s blessing (by deception), falls asleep and dreams of a staircase with angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth. The image of Jacob’s “ladder” enters the story as the human dream of full intimacy with God. Jacob recognizes the dream as in invitation from the God of his father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham, to extend the covenant through his progeny. Later in the story, after wrestling with the mysterious divine being, Jacob’s name will be changed to Israel, for he will be the father of the 12 tribes.

The full realization of Jacob’s dream is Jesus. Jesus is the ladder between heaven and earth, divinity and humanity. Today’s Gospel story of the raising of the dead girl and the healing of the woman suffering from the hemorrhages reveals the power to give life that flows from touching Jesus. Our hope for healing and eternal life lies in our contact with the body of Christ, what we share by baptism and our participation with the life of the church. The whole mystery is here, heaven and earth. We are now salvation history, and our touching and wrestling, naming and struggling is how the dream of incarnation is becoming a reality.

Time Out

Pencil Preaching will take a pause while I travel to be part of my 50th high school class reunion at Saint John's Prep School in Collegeville, Minn. I am posting the drawing I did to go with this coming Sunday's Gospel about the call to discipleship. I think I know why Jesus tells us not to look back once we put our hand to the plow. Not only will we plow a crooked row ahead, but we may also see how crooked the row is behind us.
How many of us live the life we thought we were going to live when we left high school? Fifty years later it is amazing to see the twists and turns our lives have taken. It is humbling to realize how choice, chance and circumstance shaped everything we thought we could control at every step. Grace seems to make up for our mistakes and mercy and forgiveness open up new paths where we had failed or gotten stuck. Gratitude is always in order.
I plan to be back at my desk by Monday, July 8, when Pencil Preaching will resume.

Leper

“Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him” Matt 8:2).

The image of meeting and touching a leper is quite dramatic. Among the many stories about St. Francis of Assisi, true and false, his encounter with and embrace of a leper seems to be historical and an important moment in his conversion. He was overcoming that crucial gulf between “us” and “them” that defines most of our worlds, our social patterns and the underlying fears we have about being exposed to strangers and outcasts. Francis left behind his former self-image, status, family name and wealth to become a poor man, invisible and powerless, bearing all the stigmas poor and sick people face wherever they go.

Jesus contaminates himself ritually and, for all they knew at that time, physically by touching and being touched by the leper. He, too, was on his way to becoming an outcast. And in a strange twist, while the leper was healed and restored to the community, Jesus was increasingly excluded and denied respect as he fulfilled his mission to announce God’s kingdom. His embrace of outcasts was an essential part of that mission. The kingdom was not a gathering of the virtuous but a reunion of virtuous and sinners, winners and losers, insiders and outsiders. It was a banquet at which everyone was welcome.

One measure of our own discipleship as individuals and as church is to consider the tables where we gather. Who is missing from our group? Who are the outcasts, the invisible and absent others, the unwanted strangers in our world? How can we find and bring them closer, knowing that this is what Jesus did to make our broken world whole?

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