As we look at the scriptures for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 27, 2015) we see leaders afraid to share their gifts and privileges. Prophecy and the power to drive away evil, is not to be shared. In the first reading (NM 11:25-29) the seventy elders go to Moses asking him to stop Eldad and Medad from prophesying. Moses answers:
"Are you jealous for my sake?
Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!
Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!"
Then in the gospel (Mk (:38-48), we hear John objecting that someone is “driving out demons in your name.” Like the elders of Moses, the disciples have begun to hoard their power to do good. They do not want it shared. Jesus gives this answer:
Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink
because you belong to Christ,
amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward. (italics added)
The disciples were having a natural reaction, one that many of us experience. We do this when get involved in a spiritual program or church movement. (Cursillo, Marriage Encounter, Contemplative Outreach, Secular orders are examples.) We may become deeply involved in a particular parish or approach to social activism. These causes are fruitful and meaningful to us. Then one day we see someone else involved in the same effort and they are not doing it the way we were taught. Our natural response to oppose this new way of doing things. We need to step back and wish, with Moses, that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all - in whatever way the Lord choses.
We can learn to distinguish false and true leadership through the scriptures for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 20, 2015). In the gospel (Mk 9:30-37) we will hear that the disciples were arguing while on their way to Capernaum. Once there Jesus
…began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”
But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.
They got this lesson in leadership:
“If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. This desire, in one of its forms, has indeed had ample justice done to it in literature. I mean, in the form of snobbery. Victorian fiction is full of characters who are hag-ridden by the desire to get inside that particular Ring which is, or was, called Society.
Often the desire conceals itself so well that we hardly recognize the pleasures of fruition. Men tell not only their wives but themselves that it is a hardship to stay late at the office or the school on some bit of important extra work which they have been let in for because they and So-and-so and the two others are the only people left in the place who really know how things are run.
Lewis recognized that the inner ring is necessary and even useful - but we need to ask ourselves what we will do in order to gain entry and remain “on the inside.”
Potomac Fever (n): A disease peculiar to the greater Washington, DC, metropolitan area that presents chiefly as an intense desire in the infected to be associated with the power and prestige of the United States Federal Government, particularly the Executive Branch. Associated symptoms include acts of extreme obsequiousness to those in power or likely to be in power; asserting as fact things one knows or suspects not to be true and; a burning desire to do more work for less pay.
I knew and felt that fever. Early in my career as an intelligence analyst I was given entry to specially guarded doors. These doors, I suspected were named after the song “Green Door.” Much of our work was painstakingly detailed and mundane. Yet in the process we got to read and analyze highly restricted documents concerning the 1983 war scare and Ryszard Kuklinski. He was a heroic and influential Polish Colonel whose role in the end of the cold war is, IMO, under-appreciated.
While all of this was satisfying, and we treasure the hope that our analysis may have contributed to the end of the cold war, I’m reminded that gospel based leadership is very different.
Pope Francis understands Mk 9:30-37. Can anyone suggest political, academic, business or church leaders who do? Do we?
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.”
Thomas Keating’s explanation of this saying is set forth very clearly here. Repentance is much less a matter of voluntary acceptance of physical suffering through fasting, sackcloth or other methods. Rather it means to change the direction in which we are looking for happiness.
We have been searching in directions learned from our youth. We busy ourselves executing behavioral “programs for happiness.” At some point we discover that they don’t work - but they have become what Keating calls our false self. When we are told that we will have to give it up, we will feel like we are being asked to give up our life. In the end we will live better without this false self. Having lost what we thought was our life, we will save our life, just as the gospel says.
The person most surprised at Donald Trump’s political success (so far) is - Mr. Trump. While I can only guess at his motives for getting into the race, he was frustrated at the inability of government to get things done. Perhaps it was out of resentment, maybe out of plain frustration, but when he declared he thought h himself a doer. Now he finds himself a popular politician and, like Robert Redford, at the end of The Candidate, he has to ask “What do we do now?”
This week’s thought on Mr. Trump: The shrewdest words on him from another candidate were Chris Christie’s observation a month ago that Mr. Trump will be as good a candidate as he wants to be, which implied that others would not bring him down, but he could bring himself down. My thought, which is really a question, is that candidates for president, while natural competitors, sometimes get to the point where they think they are going to win, and it messes with their heads. Maybe they fear, deep down, that they’re not quite up to the office—their skills don’t match its demands, their psychological makeup can’t withstand its burdens. They start to think: A guy like me shouldn’t be president! At that point they begin to undermine themselves with poor decisions and statements. I’ve wondered about what Mr. Trumps’s inner workings might tell him in this area. Sooner or later we’ll find out if he has any taste for self-sabotage.
That of course would only happen if in his mind the White House, the office of the presidency, holds a certain mystique, certain historic vibrations: “Lincoln walked here.” “ FDR found out about Pearl Harbor in this room.” I’m not sure everyone has those feelings anymore. They used to. Poor Nixon wouldn’t put his shoes up on a hassock unless he covered it with a towel, because it was White House furniture.
I understand that Trump has raised the hopes of many who are frustrated with politicians and the inability of government to change. I’m surprised at the number of people who support him when it seems to me that they should not. To me, Trump should go back and read Mt. 5:21-24:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
Evangelical voters, it seems to me, should be opposed to Trump on this basis alone -even if untroubled by his three marriages. Yet many favor him. Go here for Richard Ostling’s discussion of this phenomenon.
My hope is that Mr. Trump will look at his base, highly vocal and many of them angry. He will look at the potential of arousing anger and hate-filled attitude and wonder: “Can I control this? What will happen if I don’t.” Then, out of patriotism, he will change tactics. This is a hope, not an analysis. I have no idea of what those tactics would be.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.
In Mark (7:31-37) Jesus takes a deaf man who has a speech impediment, touches his ears and tongue and says “Ephphatha” be opened. In Mark we find a hope that the promise of Isaiah is being made real.
Yet when we look a James 2:1-5, we find that it is not just our eyes and ears that must be open. Our hearts must be open as well. James tells us that we are to “show no partiality” towards the people we welcome to the assembly. The rich, poor, respected and disreputable should all be welcome.
“As Pope Francis has written of St. Francis of Assisi in “Laudato Si’,” “He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (No. 10). They are not odd pieces of a puzzle that will not fit together but integral pieces that are all necessary for the puzzle to come together.”
If all things are connected as part of God’s creation we will find that favoring one cause (such as environmental or pro-life) over another can make us ideologically blind and deaf. We can test the extent to which our political beliefs have clouded our vision by reflecting on this extract from Pope Francis’ Laudato Si
A correct relationship with the created world demands that we not weaken this social dimension of openness to others, much less the transcendent dimension of our openness to the “Thou” of God. Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence.
120. Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away”.
121. We need to develop a new synthesis capable of overcoming the false arguments of recent centuries.
If this extract makes us uncomfortable, we need to ask if our political and social beliefs have closed our eyes, ears and hearts.
The scriptures for the 22 Sunday in Ordinary Time (Aug. 30th, 2015) focus on faithfulness to the law (First reading - Dt. 4:1-8) with our hearts, not just our lips (third reading - Mk 7: 1-23). The second reading (Jas 1:17-18, 21B-22, 27) omits some lines that I find instructive. The second reading urges us:
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.”
Lines 23-26 are omitted, leaving us to wonder what James meant my “deluding yourselves.”
“23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror.
24 He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like.
25 But the one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres, and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does.
26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain.”
When we hear the word we can see who we really are just as we might in a mirror. Sometimes we see parts of ourselves that we might easily excuse or ignore. When we go into the world acting on what we have seen, those things that we would ignore are reflected back again.
If we hear the word and do not act on it, we can easily use our tongues to criticize and blame others for their shortcomings, having forgotten our own. When we are self-deluded we will be seen by the world as one whose “religion is in vain.”
We all know Christians like this. The media is quick to make spectacles and stereotypes out of them.
The reading from James concludes:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Today we add refugees, and all other defenseless and oppressed, to orphans and widows.
“If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
And the people answered:
Far be it from us to forsake the LORD for the service of other gods. For it was the LORD, our God, who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery.
We will hear the same choice in the gospel (Jn 6:60-69). Some disciples are unable to resolve the conflict between Jesus’s sayings and their understanding their faith. When they return to their former way of life, Jesus asks the twelve if they want to leave. Peter answers:
“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
The people of Israel knew that the Lord had delivered them from slavery. This was only after they had served other gods and tried to find peace and prosperity without the Lord. Since they knew that the Lord had rescued and protected him, they were willing to serve the Lord. Many of the disciples - still Israelites and living under Roman occupation - had their own ideas of how God should act. They found Jesus teaching hard to accept and “returned to their former way of life. The twelve came to believe that Jesus had “the words of eternal life”. They chose to turn their lives and wills over to him.
So may it be for all of us - and, having decided, may we continue in our actions.
The connection is a bit unusual, but bear with me. In the first reading (Prv 9:16) Wisdom calls to us:
“Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live;”
In the second reading (Eph 5:15-20) Paul warns us:
“not to get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery”
To make the connection, we need to look at the ancient meaning of debauchery. While today it has the connotation of sexual excess, the history of the word is different. According to dictionary.com:
1590s, from M.Fr. debaucher "entice from work or duty," from O.Fr. desbaucher "to lead astray," supposedly lit. "to trim (wood) to make a beam" (from bauch "beam," from Frankish balk; from the same Gmc. source that yielded English balk, q.v.). A sense of "shaving" something away, perhaps, but the root is also said to be a word meaning "workshop," which gets toward the notion of "to lure someone off the job;" either way the sense evolution is unclear.
So, if debauchery means getting lured away from one’s original purpose it can also mean getting lost. If we get seriously lost, we are in this situation evoked by the haunting lyric from the song
"I had a gal and she had me
And the sun was always shinin'
But then one day I left my gal
But then one day I left my gal
I left her far behind me
And now I'm lost so gol darn lost
Not even God can find me."
It is a hunting thought. I can remember being touched by that line all the way back into my High School days.
The good news comes from the Bread of Life sequence in John’s gospel for Sunday (6:51-58):
"Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him."
If Jesus remains in us, we can never get that lost. We may think that we are so lost that not even God can find us, but all we need to do is look within. God is there.
We will be entering the Elijah story part way through. In the preceding chapter (1 Kings 18) Elijah has emerged victorious in his life-and-death contest with the prophets of Baal and earned the rage of Ahab who promises to kill Elijah. Protected by the had of the Lord, Elijah flees. On this Sunday we hear in chapter 19 that he gave up and laid down to die. Instead, an angel awakens him, provides bread and water, and insists that he nourish himself for the forty days journey ahead. At the end of the journey he will experience the presence of God in a “light, silent sound.”
The Gospel compares this kind of bread with the bread of life:
“…I am the bread of life.
Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died;
this is the bread that comes down from heaven
so that one may eat it and not die.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
May we all be nourished for the journey by word and sacrament.
On the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 2nd) we will hear about hunger. In our first reading (from Ex 16) the Israelites wish that:
“.. we had died at the LORD’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!”
Manna from heaven relieved their hunger. Jesus relates this story in the gospel (Jn 6:24-35) and reminds the crowd:
“…it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
The crowd responds:
“…give us this bread always.”
and Jesus answers:
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
We may ask why this promise is hard to grasp when it will give us hope in hard times. We get an answer from our second reading when St. Paul advises the Ephesians that:
“…you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth. (Eph 4:22-24)