Lent and Easter Reflections


Be Prepared

“So it will be on the day the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:30).

Today’s Lucan Gospel has echoes of the first destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E,, after a 30-month siege by the Babylonians. The terrible suffering is recorded in 2 Kings and Lamentations. But Luke is also referring to the more recent Jewish-Roman war and the second destruction of the city in 70 C.E., as he reads that terrible event back into the time and words of Jesus, who warned of the judgment to come for the failure to read the signs of the times.

We grow accustomed to the idea that because God is merciful there will never be a time of reckoning, but the Gospel clearly indicates that within history itself the failure to change unjust structures leads to self-destruction. Human violence erupts when privileged groups repress others and when cultures postpone or reject needed reforms. Failure to evolve leads to revolution; social upheaval becomes inevitable if inequality persists for the majority.

Of all the titles attributed to Jesus by the early church and the evangelists (Christ, Messiah, Lord), the one most likely used by Jesus himself was the “Son of Man,” a third-person designation that translates as “human being.” Jesus says, in effect, that he is identifying himself with all human beings. The measure of God’s visible presence in the world is revealed in people, who bear the image and likeness of God. The way we treat any human being is how we treat God. History shows that horrific acts of violence against human beings will expose us to judgment. We come face to face with God in acts of genocide, war, the neglect of the vast numbers of poor, who live in misery and die early deaths because of economic and social repression.

When Pope Francis invoked the dream of Pope John XXIII, who first spoke of the “church of the poor” back in 1959, he was renewing the core mission of Jesus. When the church positions itself on the side of the poor of the world, it will be preaching the Gospel in its purest and most powerful form: by revealing the Son of Man, humanity itself, as God’s very own child.

The Divine Circle

“Behold, the Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21).

Luke’s account of Jesus describing the coming of the Kingdom of God as a mysterious but palpable presence in the midst of the disciples squares perfectly with the beautiful hymn to Lady Wisdom (Wis 7:22 ff). For Jesus, the appearance of God’s Will in the world is not a program or plan to be explained, but rather a conviction that takes hold in the heart, a revolution from the inside out. It can no more be described than the experience of falling in love. You just know, even if you don’t really know how you know. Those who met and knew Jesus personally must have experienced this, for he was the human face of God’s revelation, an encounter that made people want to drop everything and follow him.

I think of the gift of a really fine architect to envision a structure that is both visible and functional but also invokes a sense of awe because of how it shapes empty space and light. Those entering a building are caught up in the beauty of the directional lines and curves, the upward thrust and movement they project aesthetically, even as they shape the flow of activity and purpose in that space. A well-designed church or public building does not draw attention to itself, but accomplishes its purpose invisibly. I imagine God being present in this way, holding us, shaping us, directing us. The very subtlety of God’s influence preserves our freedom while it invites us to think and feel and act in communion with the grace of the moment. God’s love, also invisible until expressed humanly by us, becomes the organizing principle of our lives.

A circle would not be a circle without a center. Jesus gathers us around the mystery of the invisible God, forming us into a community of love and purpose. It is a beautiful place to be. The Kingdom of God is among us.

Mother Cabrini

“Jesus, Master, have pity on us” (Luke 17:12).

The deadly typhoon in the Philippines and crisis of getting help to hundreds of thousands of storm victims in the aftermath reminds us that compassion is at the core of our human nature. We see suffering and we want to respond. When it is one of our own loved ones, we will do anything to alleviate any suffering. Seeing someone in pain or distress and not being able to respond is a heart-wrenching experience.

The world Jesus lived in lacked basic healthcare or the science that has produced it. People had a short life-expectancy and often died of what today we would regard as treatable illnesses. It is no surprise that Jesus’ apparent ability to heal blindness, deafness, paralysis and even leprosy made him a sensation. People who wish they had lived in the time of miracles perhaps miss the fact that modern medicine is a miracle, grace unfolding in human skill and intelligence applied to a whole range of problems that once limited human life.

Today is the feast of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, an Italian immigrant whose compassion for suffering brought her to the slums of New York to care for the poor, the sick and the many orphans among the waves of immigrants pouring into the United States in the 19th century. Each time she saw a need she responded, founding 67 places of ministry across the country before her death in 1917. There is no better image for today’s reflection than an early photo of Mother Cabrini. Her face shows her idealism but also her shrewd intelligence and drive. She did more than feel compassion for the suffering of others. She used every resource available and her own powers of persuasion to create institutions that met the physical, mental and spiritual needs of others. We honor her today, one of God’s great miracle workers.

Love to Serve

“We are unprofitable servants…” (Luke 17:10).

During a recent trip to Dallas for a family wedding, it was clear that the ones who make such events happen are often lost in the background even as they provide essential connections and services.
My nephew Danny met us at the airport and took us to our motel, went back for other arriving relatives, then came later to pick a large group of us to go to the groom’s dinner. His father, my older brother, knew he could depend on Danny and had him running errands throughout the weekend, He always appeared on time, adjusted to every change in plans and was in constant touch by cell phone.
The wedding involved countless contributions of time and creativity from a large circle of friends, neighbors and family members. Food prepared, beautiful centerpieces created, chairs set up, a beautiful meal served -- all came together to make the event a real celebration of love and joy for everyone. Typically, any attempt to acknowledge someone was met with, “Just my job,” or “That’s the way we do it here in Texas,” and other more elegant ways of deflecting praise.

Jesus praises such service by calling it ordinary. What we do for love is what is expected of a disciple, so we are just happy to part of the larger mystery of community, able to use our gifts to the full to make others happy. He makes this kind of service the model for his church. Those who want to be important should place themselves at the service of others. They will make things happen. Those who are leaders should be the greatest servants of all, setting an example for the rest. Those who want to be first should know that the best place in line is last, because that means that everyone else will have their needs met by the time you get to the front, the very thing you want for the community you love.

Veterans Day

Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the one through whom they occur” (Luke 17:1-6).

If there was ever a millstone around the neck of the human race, it has been war and all of the factors that lead up to war. On this Veterans Day, we commemorate the millions of people who have died in wars, soldiers and civilians, an offering in blood for honor, flag and fatherland.

Kansas City is noted for having a first-class museum dedicated to telling the story of the First World War (1914-1918), which claimed the lives of 9 million combatants and devastated central Europe. Peace terms imposed on Germany set the stage for Word War II (1939-1945) a global conflict that claimed 50 million lives. The museum presentation of the causes of World War I shows how the industrial mass production of weapons and unbridled nationalism came together to make possible the slaughter of a whole generation of young men in the trenches of France. It is a most powerful lesson about the futility of war to solve political or economic differences.

Today’s Gospel is a fitting indictment of those who cause wars, the profiteers and politicians, zealots and ideologues who send others to fight (“It would better for someone to be cast into the sea with a millstone around his neck than to cause the innocent to sin”), but it also addresses the need for forgiveness and the power of prayer to prevent evil.

Blessed are those who negotiate just resolutions of conflicts to prevent war, and those who promote truth and reconciliation to heal the wounds of war. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains, so blessed are the peacemakers who say, as Pope Paul VI did at the United Nations in 1968, “No more war; war never again!”

Alive in God

Note: I will be traveling this weekend, but am posting Sunday's short reflection now to support preachers dealing with an interesting but challenging Gospel reading. Back as normal on Monday. Thanks.

“God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, and to him all are alive” (Luke 20:38).

Today’s Gospel is one many preachers would rather avoid, like having to preach on the Trinity or the Sunday when Paul’s teaching on husbands and wives comes around in the Lectionary. Yet it is not just the complexity of the story about Jesus’ encounter with the Sadducees that is so daunting. There is something tedious and stuffy about their approach to God and religion that is simply off putting. Where did these so-called learned men come up with this stuff? A poor woman married by seven brothers in succession to insure progeny for the oldest brother — a hypothetical absurdity advanced not for itself but only to challenge the whole idea of life after death. Jesus has little patience for them, says they – the nominal leaders of the Temple establishment and high society in Jerusalem – know neither God nor the Scriptures!

But, for preaching themes, the reading is rich in possibilities because Jesus does know God and the Scriptures. His God is alive and those who know God are alive, not just in their natural lives but in the promise of eternal life. How can it be otherwise? Did God call and befriend Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the prophets only to abandon them? Did God form an eternal covenant with Israel only to send his faithful ones to the grave? The problem with the Sadducees is that they are already dead.

I remember Aggie Rieger, an amazing grade school principal and personal theologian, passing along to her faculty in a pre-school year workshop the insight that God’s name is not I WAS or I WIIL BE, but I AM. God is alive and always in the present moment. That is why when we pray we should not dwell on regrets or hopes but on the grace of the moment, which is all there really is. It helps us get to work and connected to immediate concerns, where God is most active. Children live in the moment, their feelings and thoughts overflowing into their behavior, visible on their faces, always vulnerable and amazingly alive. This is how to be a teacher, to plunge into life and deal with its problems and energies right in front of us. This is why women are often the best teachers, because they, too, live in the moment.

Jesus lived this way, so when the Sadducees tried to drag him into their small world of hair-splitting conundrums, faculty lounge rhetoric and posturing, he is already moving on into the flow of the passing moment, catching the wind of the Spirit in his sails and the living voice of God that sustains life here and now. If today's long Gospel succeeds in capturing some of the stuffiness of formal religion, and if people squirm in their seats as preachers set out to explain everything, there may be some design in that. Luke shows us Jesus throwing wide the windows to remind us that God is found among the living, not the dead.

Mercy Offered Freely

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1).

“It was observed by those whose business it is to know that Jesus was out late again last night, seen in the bars drinking and cavorting with some of the worst kinds of people. You know who I mean. Ordinary people seem to love him -- charlatan that he is -– preaching holiness by day and boozing it up with gangsters and their women at night. No upstanding pastor would be seen dead with him. And as clever as he is, this Jesus of Nazareth is nothing but a hillbilly preacher in the big city who is in over his head and on his way down.”

The three parables of mercy Jesus tells in Luke 15 were addressed to his critics, the good people of his day who took scandal at his “preferential love” for outcasts and sinners. The stories have an element of extravagance that gets our attention. “What shepherd among you having 100 sheep would not leave the 99 to go in search of one lost sheep?” What shepherd indeed! No sensible shepherd would do what Jesus proposes. What is wrong with this picture? Likewise, a woman who spends a whole day upending her house to find a single lost coin, then invites her neighbors to party with her when she finds it. Or a proud father abused by an impudent and selfish son who longs for his return and restores him with honor. Who would act like this?

Jesus acts like this by going out in search for those who are lost. Moreover, he says, God, the ultimate arbiter of good and evil, the basis for all morality, reward and punishment, does the same. Jesus’ parables of mercy are meant to move the self-righteous not just to show mercy to their wayward brothers and sisters, but to be open themselves to that the same unconditional love being offered to them, who have become so distant from God because of their pride and intolerance.

There is no concession to sin here by Jesus. He is after people who are sick and dying, inviting them to come home to God and the community, to leave their addictions and destructive ways behind them. This is why he came, to bring people to life. Only love can do that, and what better way to offer it than to go where it is most needed.

Going All the Way

“This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish” (Luke 14:30).

Several months ago, my wife spotted a thin crack on the wall in the corner of our living room. The house is nearly 100 years old, so we needed to know if something was happening at the foundation that needed attention. A company will come today to put some metal shims under the corner, where the house is showing signs of a slight shift because of subsoil changes in the water table due to weather and run off patterns in the neighborhood. It will be a small fix but has become one of those things that can trouble the imagination as you lie awake at night.

Today’s Gospel turns this into a parable about much deeper questions of whether our lives rest on a secure foundation. Jesus uses the image of a builder and the war planner to ask if his disciples are prepared to finish what they have started? The construction image — perhaps a glimpse into his own experience working with Joseph as a young man – is like another parable that asks whether a house built on sand will survive a storm. Jesus wants his followers to calculate the cost of following him, because discipleship is not a weekend activity or half-hearted decision. Once we say yes, all other loyalties, including tribal and family ties, become secondary. Every real vocation, plan or purpose needs a foundation. If it is only a notion, we will fold when adversity comes. The real foundation of any long term project is not just in the mind but also in the heart.

What Jesus asks of others he has already demanded of himself. His time in the desert after his baptism was about stripping his motivation down to an essential act of the will. He fasted and prayed until his vocation emerged clear of personal ambition, hidden ego agendas and messianic delusion represented by the three temptations. He emerged from the desert as the Servant of God, his face fixed like flint toward Jerusalem. As he returned to Galilee to begin his preaching, he chose others who would undergo the same purifying process — which for most of them involved failure first, then commitment.

The Gospel that calls each of us at baptism is a “lamp unto our feet” (Ps 119) that lights just the next step, not a golden path to the end. Discipleship proceeds one step at the time, one day at a time as we negotiate our wills with God’s will. If our hearts are not in it, it is best not to begin, but when we know it is our true vocation, we must seize it and live it as though our very life depended on it, because from that moment on, it does.

You Are Cordially Invited

“Come, everything is now ready” (Luke 14:16).

The Gospels record a number of parables about the urgency of accepting God’s invitation when it is offered. Whatever their original intent, these stories took on added significance later in light of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Today’s Lucan story of a great banquet whose intended guests make up excuses and fail to show reflects the view in the early church that the failure of the Chosen People to respond to God’s initiative in Jesus opened the way for Gentile Christians. In most versions of this story, the party is described as a wedding feast, an added image of what the coming of God’s Kingdom would be like.

In its cultural context a big wedding involved unknown variables like the arrival time of the wedding parties traveling on foot, but once that was known and the preparations began, lambs and cattle slaughtered and roasted, it was paramount for invited guests to come when summoned. The frustration of the host over the cost of putting on such a feast and his concern for the happiness of a son or daughter being married is evident. Determined to fill the banquet hall, he sends his servants to bring in the poor, then sends them out to the crossroads to compel travelers to join the crowd.

A real life story some years ago made national news when a bride who was stood up at the altar opened her expensive wedding reception to the public rather than cancel. Her bold gesture, like Jesus’ parables, conveys a poignant message not to miss out when love is offered us. How many people have in fact been distracted by career and possessions from spending time with their own children. How many others have taken a cautious path or taken second best rather than risk it all to be with the one they truly loved when the moment arose and a choice had to be made.

What is an unmistakable theme in Jesus’ teaching is the open invitation to the poor, the suffering and the outcasts to take their place at God’s banquet. Without them, there would be no real party, for God’s love for them is, in the words of the Latin American bishops meeting in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, a “preferential love.” The poor by definition need everything so they respond. The greatest tragedy of all is not to really need what God is offering because we are distracted and satisfied with other priorities and pursuits.

Party On, Dude

“When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be” (Luke 12:14).

In an earlier job years ago with a big company, I was informed that it might help my career if I knew how to play golf. The golf course and club house, it seems, were where you made connections inside the boy’s club. Now I admire those who can play (and afford to play) golf, but I had little interest in playing or being groomed by association. So I just hung on to my job until moving to the next opportunity.

Today’s Gospel affirms that things have not changed much. The social world of Jesus' time was essentially a quid-pro-quo culture of building up a network of friends who could help you get ahead as you climbed the ladder of success. Dinner parties were part of this exchange of favors, so you invited people who could help you in the expectation that they would invite you back. Meals were also reserved for an intimate circle of associates, with couches arranged around a central table where everyone dipped from common dishes, drank wine and communed within each others’ “nasal bubble” a term describing the Middle Eastern custom of getting up close and personal.

Jesus challenged the whole culture when he suggested to his wealthy Pharisee host that instead of inviting family and friends he should invite unwashed beggars, the crippled, lame and blind. It was an outrageous idea that clearly defeated the purpose of fine dining. Like many other parables reflecting the upside down and reverse order of God’s kingdom on earth, Jesus is calling for a revolution to restore right relationships among all people as brothers and sisters, with special care for the weakest among us.

Dorothy Day discovered this revolution of the heart and of society when she began the Catholic Worker in the Bowery section of New York City at the depth of the Depression. Her soup kitchen and houses of hospitality were signs of the possibility that God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven. Despite the challenges of serving the poor, over 200 Catholic Worker houses across the country continue this vision and practice, bringing privilege and poverty together in community, bridging the gap our society has created based on wealth and zip code. Social climbing becomes downward mobility; service leads to common sharing of the human condition where it is most exposed in all of us.

The secret Jesus wanted his wealthy host to discover was that partying with those at the bottom of the heap is actually more fun and more satisfying than cocktails with stuffy strangers at the top or a lavish dinner to impress you from people expecting payback at your earliest convenience.