What Is God Asking of Us?

"What does the Lord, your God, ask of you?" (Exodus 10:12).

One sign of our covenant with God is a willingness to share our time, treasure and talent in the service of others. The idea of tithing, giving a portion of our income, is a standard measure.

Today's gospel tells of the requirement for Jews visiting Jerusalem to pay a small temple tax. Jesus makes this a teachable moment by saying that the tax was like a royal toll on foreign visitors, not subjects. Even though the disciples were therefore exempt, Jesus tells Peter to find a coin miraculously in the mouth of a fish to pay the tax for them. 

This curious little story about tithing, tolls and taxes reminds us of the deeper message in the Scriptures that the one thing God expects of us before all else is to show mercy on others.  Moses reminds the people that just as they were rescued from slavery and brought to the Promised Land as aliens, so they must care for the foreign alien, the widow and orphan in the same way.  In truth, if we do not care for the needy, no amount of time, treasure and talent has any meaning. 

The United States is facing a profound crisis of its most basic identity and values in the current headlines about the rise of violent racism, policies that impact immigrants and refugees, and economic policies that enrich some at the expense of the poor, the sick and the disabled. Internal problems are also reflected in a foreign policy actions that could lead to war with unimaginable global consequences.These crises threaten the  fundament human ideas of a social compact and the common good that are the foundation of all our national life and international standing, and they reject the even more basic covenant underlying civilization itself, found in every religious tradition. 

Our tithe is to both pray and act on behalf of our beliefs. We should not expect miracles to bring us back from the brink if passivity and lack of concern have brought us there. Now is the time to make our voices heard, to work for justice so that peace will prevail. 

It Is The Lord!

“When Elijah heard the tiny whispering sound, he hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave” (1 Kings 19:13).
 
Today’s Lectionary presents us with two of the most dramatic yet nuanced theophanies in the Bible. Elijah the prophet and Jesus teach us how to know to find God in our lives.
 
 Elijah encounters God on Mount Horeb. He is told to prepare for God passing by, and he knows that the contact with be in passing, mediated in some way, as it was for Moses in the burning bush, since direct interface with the timeless eternal God is not possible from our limited, time-dependent dimension. It was believed that no human being would survive such an encounter.
 
Elijah experiences three manifestations of awesome power — a rock-crushing wind, an earthquake and fire – but God is not in any of these. What follows is a “tiny whispering sound,” and because Elijah is truly a prophet he actually can hear this and recognize that it is the sound of God passing by. Still, he wraps his face in his cloak to protect himself from any glimpse of glory and steps to the entrance of the cave.
 
In today’s Gospel, the disciples encounter Jesus on the lake during a furious storm. Jesus’ ghostlike appearance suggests that this could be a post-resurrection story inserted into the narrative. Matthew uses a series of lake crossings to indicate how Jesus prepared his disciples exist in two dimensions as they were transformed by faith from earthly to transcendent life in Christ. They would learn to see their risen Lord and even “walk on water” as the church made its way through the storms of history.
 
 What would it be for us to encounter God and the risen Christ? Our own faith grows from more miraculous or literal expectations to a layered process of discernment. Isn’t this the meaning of Elijah’s grasp of God’s presence as a tiny whispering sound? It says that we know God in this life only with faith. Faith comes with discipleship, which is about learning to see and hear in a new and deeper way. Our encounters with God will be mediated by the people we serve and love, by the signs all around us of grace at work in acts of mercy and justice. Our faith in Jesus is to trust his living presence in the sacraments, in the community, and especially in our own daily experiences of joy and suffering as part of life.
 
If you have helped a brother or sister, not with force or power but with a word of compassion, you have encountered God in a tiny whispering sound. If you have grasped a friend by the hand who was sinking in despair, you have encountered Jesus. If you have dared to step out of your own security to help another, you know how to walk on water.  These powerful scriptural images contain promises and become real in action. 
 
Behold, today the living God is passing by and the risen Christ is revealed to his church.
 

What Matters Most?

"What profit is there to gain the whole world but forfeit your life?" (Matt 16:25).

In a scene from Robert Bolt's play about Thomas More, "A Man for All Seasons," Thomas, imprisoned by the king for treason, tries to explain to his daughter why he cannot sign a pledge of loyalty to save his life. Thomas cups his hands tight as one might to hold water, then says that if he moved even one finger the water would drain out. So his conscience holds his integrity, and if he compromises it even in secret to save his life, he will lose his very self. 

What do we have that is more important than our integrity, our very self? What kind of life would we have if we betrayed our basic principles for gain? To live with ourselves, we would have to quiet our conscience every day by denying that it made any difference that we sold out. 

Jesus called his disciples to follow him with courage and steadfastness. They were to be prepared to lose everything to remain faithful. He promised them that if they lost their lives for his sake, they would keep their lives. The self is a sacred trust, the one treasure we cannot afford to squander or betray.  What price can equal the value of our very self, and what gain could fill the emptiness we would feel if we lost our self in exchange for the whole world? 

We know that life is filled with compromises and failures, and that we can lose our way as well as consciences from time to time. The call of Jesus is never withdrawn, and like many of the first disciples who first failed before they were restored by his forgiveness, we must go forward with faith and try again.  Without mercy, everyone would be lost. God wants us to be saved, and grace will help us no matter how we stumble and fall, as long as we rise again and continue our discipleship.  

Sowing and Reaping

"Where I am, there also will my servant be" (John 12:26).

The imagery of seeds and sowers is found in all the Gospels and was surely part of Jesus' central message. The coming of the Kingdom of God was not so much an announcement as an invitation. We are invited to enter a process of transformation. The first Covenant under the Law could only take us so far. The pursuit of legal and moral perfection produced a life of justice and order, but it could only lead us to the threshold of grace, where everything is gift and holiness is initiated by the life changing encounter with God. 

Passage to the new Covenant with God in love asks us to surrender ourselves in a new way. Anyone who has entered a love relationship knows that the thrill of crossing that threshold is in the risk involved. We are placing our lives on the line. What we desire will cost us everthing. We do not know the future. We surrender control of our lives to the shared life being offered us with the beloved. We freely enter a commitment whose outcome does not yet exist but will be created by the love that makes us a new being. 

This is the meaning of the seed, which is pure potential. If the seed is not sown, it remains pure potential, self-possessed but alone. Only in surrendering itself to the earth and to the process of coming out of its protective husk to be acted upon by the nutrients and moisture of the soil, to participate in the labor of thrusting roots into the ground and shoots into the air, will the tiny seed fulfill its destiny to give its life for the many.  The seed that falls to the ground and dies, multiplies itself manyfold and shares in a harvest that is its intended purpose and fulfillment. 

Perhaps this image and the parables Jesus told about seed and sower inspired him as he made his ways through the fields in spring planting en route to Jerusalem. Jesus knew that he would die there, and he must have reflected deeply and urgently on the meaning of his death as Suffering Servant.   The fate and miracle of the seed was the answer to his prayer.  By his death he would multiply the grace God was offering that would usher in the new Covenant.  

Can we also entrust ourselves and our fate to this same promise? Are we not the seed that falls to the ground in order to spring up anew as the green harvest of the new Covenant and the new Creation? We all will face the fact of death. Here is our invitation to unite both our life and out death with Christ in order to share in the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Teaching Jesus

"I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 15:24).

This extraordinary story, preserved in Matthew's Gospel, seems to suggest that even Jesus had to learn the extent of his ministry. If this was the case (and not a teachable moment by Jesus meant for his disciples), then the woman at the border and the Holy Spirit conspired to convince Jesus that his vision was at that moment too small.

The Canaanite woman is both persistent and persuasive, using every tactic at hand because she is desperate on behalf of her possessed daughter. Jesus was encountering an irresistible force-- a mother who refused to let her child suffer.  In the exchange with Jesus, she takes the insult to her pagan status (non-Jews were regarded as "dogs") and turns it back on Jesus. If the children's food should not be given to the dogs under the table, at least the scraps that children are known to drop ought to go to the "puppies."  

Her logic is not only compelling, but Jesus seems to sense that there is a higher power at work here. He who preached so often about his Abba's love for his children, or about fathers who would never give their child a stone if he asked for bread, was cornered by the woman's compassion. Was this not a direct message from the God of Mercy Jesus was announcing to Israel?  And if mercy is infinite, how can he say that it stops at the border?  

Jesus knows he is witnessing a miracle of healing that has already been granted because of this pagan woman's great faith. He commends her and learns from her that the Holy Spirit wants him to extend his mission beyond Israel to the whole world.  

We will know that our faith is genuine if it keeps expanding beyond our expectations and assumptions.  Need will show us where God is at work, not borders or rules or exclusive standards that define who is and who is not worthy of our love. It is a hard lesson, but if Jesus could learn it, so should we. 

Walking on History

"Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid" (Matt 14:28).

Matthew's account of the storm at sea and Peter walking on water was addressed to an early church launched on the rough seas of history. The barque of Peter would face many squalls, and those in leadership would have to keep the ship focused on the risen Jesus, even when it meant stepping beyond the institutional structures into an uncertain future.

An honest look at church history shows how often the institution seemed off course, rudderless and in danger of faltering because of corruption and the quest for power. The 13th century witnessed a major shift from feudalism to new social structures based in on the rise of a mercantile class and the universities in large cities. Popes and a hierarchy weighted down by land and the lifestyles of princes were slow to respond to the cultural changes and faced turbulent movements of reform and new ideas.

The Mendicant orders founded by St. Francis and St. Dominic provided a major course correction for a church sinking from corruption and greed. The poverty of Christ and the intellectual power of faith combined with reason helped reinvigorated the faithful and reform the church from within. Today we celebrate the life of St. Dominic (1170-1221), who founded the Order of Preachers. The Dominicans gave the church St. Thomas Aquinas, whose writings renewed sacramental theology, and St. Catherine of Siena, who, a century later, brought her passion to church unity and spirituality. 

We rejoice in these water walking saints who helped guide the church though difficult transitions in history, and for Jesus, who keeps his promise to be with us in every storm. 
 

Shared Load

"I cannot carry all this people by myself, for they are too heavy for me" (Num 11).

There must have been days when even the human Jesus felt overwhelmed. In today's Gospel, he has just received word of the beheading of John the Baptist. His ministry has just taken a deadly turn, and Jesus knew that resistance to his message could have mortal consequences. So he and his disciples withdraw in the boat to grieve and consider how to proceed. 

But as they arrive on the far side of the lake, huge crowds are waiting to be taught and, as it runs out, fed. Jesus responds with compassion, seeing not needy mouths to be fed, but people who were like "sheep without a shepherd."

Moses was likewise overwhelmed with a hungry and complaining crowd in today's first reading. The people actually long for slavery in Egypt again, because at least there they had enough to eat.  Moses complains to God about the burden of leading such a people. He would rather be dead that continue: "Please do me the favor of killing me at once, so that I need no longer face this distress."

The difference between Moses and Jesus lies in Jesus' understanding that the mission he was announcing was being accomplished by God and not him. He is so confident that the people will be fed, he places the task on his disciples: "Give them some food yourselves." Because Jesus trusts his Abba so completely, and because the disciples trust Jesus so completely, the crowds are fed, with large baskets of leftovers.  The story of Moses and Manna in the desert is fulfilled in Jesus.

Who among us has not at times felt overwhelmed by the burdens and responsibilities of work and family? Who has not complained, if only in their own mind, about how difficult other people they are trying to help can be?  Jesus knew that frustration, but was also filled with the compassion his Abba had for those in distress. It was this Compassion he knew was driving the situation, and that his Abba was already at work in preparing to feed the crowds, not with Manna, but with the miracle of Jesus as the Bread of Life. That same Bread is always available to us as we give ourselves in compassion for others 

Our Transfiguration

“Lord, it is good that we are here” (Matt 17:3).
 
Our hope for the personal and collective transformation that defies death is focused on Jesus. What happened to him is the promise we believe will also happen for us. Death will occur, even as it did for Jesus, but it will not claim us or separate us from the love of God. The question is how this will happen.
 
Today’s commemoration of the Transfiguration is a glimpse into the process that is the central theme of the New Testament and the heart of Christian formation.
 
Three events in the life of Jesus reveal the process of Christian growth St. Paul first articulated in his letters decades before the Gospels were compiled. He called it the “Paschal Mystery.”  Paul writes that our life in Christ begins with baptism. Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan is the first theophany, or manifestation, of who he is. As he emerges from the water -- a reenactment of the Exodus crossing from slavery to freedom -- the sky opens and a heavenly voice declares, “This is my beloved Son.”
 
The second event is the Transfiguration, which mirrors the baptism theophany and also tells us what the beloved Son will accomplish by his death in Jerusalem. The presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus indicates that he will fulfill the Law and the prophets by his passion and death in Jerusalem at Passover. He will lead the way for all of God’s people from the failed first creation to the new Creation, restoring to it the image and likeness of God obscured and frustrated by sin.
 
The third event, which accomplishes the first two, is the crucifixion. Jesus’ death, especially in John’s Gospel, is presented as a richly layered theology of what actually happens as the Son of Man is “lifted up” on the cross. Jesus fulfills the promise of salvation by surrendering himself completely to a sacrificial death that reveals simultaneously his resurrection, his ascension and his breathing forth of the Spirit at Pentecost. In this ultimate theophany, Jesus is revealed as the first born from the dead, the new Adam and the pioneer of our salvation. The church is born from his side in water and blood, signs of baptism and Eucharist as the means of our transformation. 
 
Jesus is our Exodus, our Passover, our human brother going on ahead of us from the old covenant to the new covenant. The command to “listen” to him means to follow him.  Here is the essence of Christian discipleship. We are to listen to his voice, to see our human journey in the light of what Jesus revealed as the purpose of life — to join with him in reclaiming the world for God.
 
This majestic vision can seem overwhelming to us as ordinary believers, but it is the heart of the liturgy we celebrate every Sunday and the purpose of all Christian formation. The Good News is that we have full access to this process of development as ordinary human beings because Jesus is one of us. His human journey is the key to our human journey. His life for others is the pattern of our call to use our gifts to serve others. His full encounter with every form of human suffering, temptation and struggle is our assurance that we can face and overcome the same challenges with his help.
 
Intimately united with Jesus, our faces shine with the divine image and likeness that Jesus restored to humanity and to creation by his Paschal Mystery. This is now the mystery of our passage from death to life in him. From the waters of baptism to the mountains of transfiguration and the inevitable crosses of life, we, too, will hear God’s voice saying that we are beloved children and bound for glory.

Who Do You Think You Are?

"And they took offense at him" (Matt 13:54)

A priest friend who ministered as a counselor in a small city said he knew it was time to move on when he knew too much about everyone. He couldn't go to a restaurant without running into couples who were stepping out on their spouses. He had had several generations in counseling from the same family and knew all the dark secrets.

St. John Vianney, known as the Cure of Ars, would  have had the same burden after hearing the confessions of everyone in Ars or in the region, He must have had to bite his tongue as he recognized the interlocking sins and failures of hundreds of people who confessed to him. 

Jesus returns to his native place, and he impresses everyone with his eloquence and miraculous powers. But, as they realize that he is that home town kid they know everything about, they take offense at him for putting on airs. Who does he think he is? They know he is just a carpenter, and all his relatives are their neighbors. As the old saying goes, "familiarity breeds contempt." 

The tragedy was that because the home town crowd suspended their belief and could not participate in the miracles they hoped Jesus would perform for them, no miracles were possible. The role of faith -- their part in opening the way for God to act in their lives, was withdrawn, and lowered expectations limited what might have happened if they had surrendered themselves to God. 

Jesus wants to come our own home town, to the intimate relationships of family and friends, colleagues and coworkers-- the people who are most familiar to us. Believing that something major can happen in these close relationships is harder than believing that great things can happen to other people in other places.  But home is where we need the miracles most, the healings, the reconciliations and the chances to start over.  The carpenter is in town, the healer of hearts and the source of infinite mercy available to all.  Whoever you are, before God you are always beloved. 

 

Cloud of Faith

"Only when the cloud lifted did they go forward" (Exodus 46:37).

During the long journey through the Sinai desert, and in particular after Moses receives the tablets of the commandments from God, he makes a kind of traveling structure called the "Dwelling" in the meeting tent. There he places the the Ark of the Covenant, which contains the tablets, and surrounds it with a curtain. 

A thick cloud descends on the Dwelling when the glory of God fills the tent, and this cloud also serves to designate the area as sacred. The symbolism serves to convey the awesome nature of God's Holiness, veiled by a curtain and shrouded in cloud. The mystery of God is presented as a cloud that comes to rest on the community when they are encamped, but lifts when it is time to move forward. God guides the journey,  telling the people when to move and when to halt and wait. 

The parables of Jesus seem simple, but they too reveal their message in stages, veiled and in a cloud, and understanding them requires patience and prayer. A single parable, like the one in today's Gospel that compares God's Kingdom to a dragnet, will offer different lessons to different people at different stages in their search for God. A net cast into the sea collects all kinds of things, some of value and some not.  How will we know? Only with experience and wisdom. Our interpretation of the parable will change the more we unpack its questions in the light of our experiences.  All of the parables of Jesus are journeys. He accompanies us through life and teaches us what we need when we need to know it.

If you feel your life is in a cloud, perhaps that cloud contains God. Faith asks us to trust and be patient when we cannot see clearly. We will go forward when God shows us the way.  If you feel your life has caught so many things, people and experiences that you no longer know what is important or worth keeping, God will help you discern what is of value and what to let go of. In any case, God is always traveling with us, even if we cannot see or feel the divine presence. 
 

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