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All You Need Is Love
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C
Today’s gospel story takes place in a synagogue and brings to mind the gravity of the recent hostage siege in the the Beth Israel synagogue (Colleyville, TX). Such calamities occur in houses of worship way too often.
We remember the 2015 massacre of nine worshipers during bible study inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (Charleston, SC).
Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down in 1980 while celebrating liturgy in the Chapel of Hospital de la Divina Providencia (San Salvador, El Salvador).
Historically speaking security breaches in sacred places are not new. In January of the year 825 Scandinavian Norsemen raided the Irish Monastery on the British Isle of Iona. They murdered the monks at the end of the liturgy.
How do we maintain hope, a feeling of safety, and a sense of our own worth as we worship in our own sacred spaces? How do we deal with the hate-filled crimes that are rampant today in our schools and streets? Where is the love of humanity? Psalm 71 for today suggests we can complain to God about our troubles and then plead for help. But is this enough?
Jeremiah the prophet (1:4-5, 17-19) needed assistance as he faced trouble in his mission to all "the nations." He preached individual repentance and community compliance to the Babylonian invasion in order to avoid total national destruction but the Israelites rejected him.
God said to Jeremiah, do not worry, I am with you all the way. It is hard to believe God is still with us when there is so much suffering in the world. The question is this: are we still walking with God?
In Luke’s gospel (4:21-30) we read that Jesus himself was rejected in the synagogue right in his home town of Nazareth. During worship he upset everyone when he spoke about caring and loving all people, even outsiders. The congregants were so outraged they tried to throw him off a nearby cliff.
Jesus did not accomplish his vision for all of humanity. He was hunted down and nailed to a cross for what he believed to be his mission — advocacy for vulnerable people. United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon wrote that “things were just fine in Nazareth … until Jesus opened his mouth.”
Life is full of imperfections but that is not all. There are joys and miracles. There is wonder and happiness. The late Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh taught mindfulness as a palliative for suffering and a formula for loving others. He claimed that happiness and suffering do go together in life but he also offered ways to endure and respond to the pain.
As an influential peace activist he believed in the importance of practicing love: “True love has the power to heal and transform any situation and bring deep meaning to our lives.”  In order to bring happiness to others, he wrote, it is essential to accept yourself, love yourself, and heal yourself.
Award-winning author Dara Horn affirmed the monk’s advice in her recent and penetrating book on the lack of respect for Jewish lives: “The freedoms we cherish are meaningless without our commitments to one another: to civil discourse, to actively educating the next generation, to welcoming strangers, to loving our neighbors. The beginning of freedom is the beginning of responsibility,” Horn wrote. 
Last week’s letter from Paul to the people of Corinth suggested how we might carry out our mission. He listed the many gifts we can use to make the world a better place. The passage today describes at length one of those gifts — the power of love. Paul stresses the importance of love in everything we do. Succinctly, “If I have faith to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13)
We can push back the blatant deprivation of human rights that has occurred over the course of human history. But because we are complex creatures, with individual opinions and goals, getting along is not easy. The result is that we become vulnerable to the weaknesses of our own making.
If we do not do something these defects will stifle and snuff out our joys, our hopes and visions not only for ourselves but more importantly for our children. History and the sacred texts of all faith traditions clearly speak to us. When we practice love toward one another, and care for one another, regardless of who we are or what our differences might be, we bring happiness into the world.
1. Thich Nhat Hanh. How to Love.” Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2015, 16.
2. Horn, Dara. People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present (Norton 2021).
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An Ideal World
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C
In a recent essay Amanda Gorman explained why she almost declined the invitation to be the inaugural poet last January. President Biden’s inauguration came right after domestic terrorists attacked the Capitol and she feared for her life. She wrote how she would “become highly visible — which is a very dangerous thing to be in America, especially if you are Black and outspoken and have no Secret Service.” She was terrified!
There is so much to fear in the world right now it is hard to focus on the joys, the delights, the serendipity, the small and often unexpected treasures that help us cope with discouragement and despair. Gorman continued: “I look at fear not as cowardice, but as a call forward, a summons to fight for what we hold dear.”
What would it be like to live in an ideal world where power-hungry governments did not encroach on neighbor nations; where the resources of a wealthy country were distributed evenly to sustain the underclass?
Can we imagine a world where borders would open up to welcome people haunted and hunted by autocratic authorities, and where the practice of restorative justice would eliminate the privatized prison industry?
What if Jews, Uyhgurs, the Rohingya, Gypsies, Christians, the LGBTQIA community, and persons of color, around the world would not have to fear being ostracized, injured, or killed just because of who they are?
Today’s reading from the first book of Corinthians (12:12-14, 27) includes a line famously found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (3:28): “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Biblical scholar Karin Neutel examined the apostle Paul’s vision for living together in an ideal society: “Paul expected an imminent cosmic change, a new creation ushered in by the death and resurrection of the Messiah.”
Paul’s three categories were expressions of first century expectations for utopian societies. Neutel noted that Paul’s contemporaries pictured “different peoples living together in one homogeneous group under one law — without ethnic distinction … living as equals … removing major causes of social conflict.”
Today we add more categories to Paul’s list. There is neither black nor white nor brown, gay nor straight, rich nor poor, healthy nor sick, transgender nor cisgender, all are equal creatures of God.
Paul imagined all peoples living under this Christian ideal. He preached not only to Jews but also Gentiles and saw baptism as a unifying experience. Paul’s mission was to make all peoples disciples of Christ and he frequently reminded his audiences of his own conversion.
Today, our dream for a peaceful planet extends beyond any one faith tradition or belief in dogmas. Our approach is broader and urgent. The development of one’s spirituality and the desire to live without fear are fueled by a feverish trepidation and a human yearning for peace and justice.
Imagine if the city or town you lived in was totally destroyed not by extreme weather conditions (fires, floods, tornadoes) but by dictators and terrorists. This has happened all too often in history. One example is reported in today’s first reading from the book of Ezra/Nehemiah (8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10).
Biblical scholar Tamara Cohn Eskenazi remarked that after their exile the Israelites “faced an overwhelming challenge: rebuilding not merely their homeland but their very identity as a people and a religion.” Yet in a short 50-years after their exile they experienced an incredible rebirth.
Cohn-Eskenazi noted the entire community was responsible for the restoration; and that the presence of God, they believed, was not limited to the restored temple building but it encompassed the entire city of Jerusalem.
In the gospel (Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21) the author wrote about the connection between Jesus and Isaiah “to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.” Jesus would become the One the Israelites were waiting for.
We too take our place in a long line of advocates for justice and peace. We respond to “a call forward, a summons to fight for what we hold dear.” We join with people of many faiths  and those who practice no religion at all to work together to create what we imagine to be an ideal world.
1. This weekend is the conclusion of this year’s Week of Prayer for Church Unity.
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Hiring Miracle Workers. Now!
The Second Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year C
Daily and weekly we Christians turn to the Bible for reassurance that God is walking with us on our journeys. Our faith and hope empower us to cope with overwhelming issues affecting our lives.
A recent Gallop Poll reported that the top three things Americans are concerned about are the economy, poor government leadership, and the unrelenting virus. There are other pressing issues such as the growing gap between rich and poor people, clashing opinions about vaccinations, voter legislation, the slow demise of democracy, and climate change.
Our frustrations have incited quarrelsome divisions in our families, neighborhoods, churches, schools and town halls. The rancor among elected officials is not helpful. These cracks in our society, however, challenge us to reflect on those ways where faith and life meet.
The evangelist John wrote a collection of astonishing episodes to convince unbelievers that Jesus was the Messiah. Like other biblical anecdotes this one (John 2:1-11) addresses what is necessary for “turning water into wine.”
Even though Jesus claimed he was not ready for ministry he conceded to his mother’s plea. He showed his skeptical followers that he had a unique ability to do wondrous deeds particularly when the lives of others were at risk.
Jesus’ vision was that every situation and person must be treated with respect and care. As he carried out this task Jesus was showing us how to be partners with God in bringing about a kin-dom here on earth.
Psalm 96 asserts we are to “proclaim the marvelous deeds [of God] to all the nations.” However, as we go about exercising our baptismal ministries we ask ourselves: where is God in this moment of history?
Isaiah the prophet (62:1-5) asked a similar question. The Israelites were rebounding from years in exile. They wanted to rebuild their Temple destroyed by the Babylonians. Life for them was so harsh many of them gave up on God.
Old Testament scholar Callie Plunket-Brewton surmised that “the loss of self-rule and the continued absence of physical and symbolic stability” represented by their Temple [building], meant that “God was absent as well.”
With a vision for the future of Israel Isaiah continued to pester God to keep the promise God made not to forsake humanity. Isaiah emphasized: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet.”
How do we use our voices to make God’s kin-dom on earth a reality? In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (12:4-11) we are reminded of the many gifts we have. No matter what our talents are each of us is blessed in some way. In turn, we can be a blessing to others by “speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all those who are destitute.” (Proverbs 31:8)
Using our wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, and discernment we can be miracle workers; we can turn things around. We do not have to possess every charism but if we use the ones we are very good at we will begin to see results.
As we remember Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend we recall the innumerable ways he used his voice and took risks on behalf of poor and vulnerable people. Like Isaiah and Jesus, King also had a dream for the future. He sought to change water into wine, that is, to end poverty, racism of every kind.
In King’s words, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it … There is no deficit in human resources, the deficit is in human will.” 
Sometimes our wine runs out. We get discouraged. We become anxious over things we cannot control. There is little money to pay the rent or mortgage, buy groceries or gas. We distrust even our closest friends. We begin to overlook the needs of others. Sometimes, we give up on God.
United Methodist pastor, Ismael Ruiz-Millán, remarked that the Cana miracle is calling each one of us “to identify what needs to be redeemed in our world so that it is in alignment with God’s desires for us.” The time is now for miracle workers to show up.
Jesus modeled for us a life dedicated to speaking only the truth; caring for those who need help; and advocating for laws that are just. Living in this way, during these troubling and unpredictable times, we too can turn water into wine.
1. Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? In A Testament of Hope ed. James M. Washington (New York: Harper & Collins, 1986), 623-624.
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Baptism and Climate Change
The Baptism of Jesus - Year C
Water is a force of nature. We are born with a need for it. We cannot live without it. About 70% of the earth’s surface is water and as much as 60% of our bodies is water. But we don’t have what each person needs.
Less than one percent of the water on earth is fresh and suitable for human consumption. About 1 in 3 people live without safe drinking water, and the global water demand is expected to increase 50 percent or more by 2040.
Water is mentioned 722 times in the Bible as a metaphor for life, death, cleansing, and purification. Today’s Psalm 29 affirms “the voice of God is over the water, vast waters.” If, according to these sacred texts, God is the architect of the primal forces of nature, why is water an endangered element? Surely God is not to blame.
The gospel for today is Luke’s version (3:15-16, 21-22) of the baptism of Jesus. Baptism with water is a customary way to initiate someone into a group. While John baptized his followers with water he said that his cousin Jesus would baptize with the “holy Spirit and fire.” There is no mention in the New Testament that Jesus himself baptized anyone with water.
If fire and Spirit are pivotal why baptize with water? According to New Testament scholar Shively Smith, the word fire is “an image for the purifying work of God’s spirit.” Baptism by water only, without an intense experience of the fiery indwelling of the Spirit, is not enough to change a person. The Spirit takes center stage in Luke’s gospel because this text does not state who actually baptized Jesus.
John the Baptizer could not have been present at the River Jordan. He was incarcerated by Herod a first century example of an insecure politician who craved dictatorial power, shamed and persecuted innocent people, and was paranoid about someone else becoming head of state. Both John and Jesus were threats to Herod’s totalitarianism.
What is the connection between baptism and climate change? While water sustains life it can also destroy life. Think of how floods, typhoons, and polluted water kill. Millions die daily due to diarrhea and one third of them are children under the age of five. Food production suffers because of droughts and rising temperatures.
Humans may never completely control natural disasters but we can work to stymie the root cause of them — climate change. Baptism is a call to discover ways to do such that.
Immersion in a large pool of water represents a symbolic “dying” with Christ and marks a change in the way a person chooses to live.  Dipped in the water the candidate is cleansed of an old life, lifted up anew and clothed with the life of Christ. Because baptism is a communal action the person then participates in a spiritual cooperative and is sustained by it as together they seek justice for all.
Biblical scholar Jerome Creach asserts that the synoptic gospels “present Jesus’ baptism as a revelation of his cosmic role as God’s servant who ushers in the kingdom of God.” That kin-dom is unfinished. The cosmos and all of its creatures are suffering. While some are waiting for the Creator God to come to the rescue, others see themselves as partnering with God to repair the earth.
A person who has faith in God, a relationship with Christ, and is energized by a holy Spirit, commits to standing with others who will boldly advocate for what is true and just. This is why so many followed John the Baptizer and then Jesus of Nazareth. The underclass of the Roman Empire yearned for someone to lead them out of subjugation to liberty.
Today, Christian cohorts unite with other faith traditions to change social policies and government legislation that, for example, deny people equal access to healthy food, decent housing, living wages, the right to vote, and, yes, clean water.
Isaiah (42:1-4, 6-7) affirms this call to action: “He [sic] will be bring forth justice to the nations.” Some scholars suggest the pronoun “he” is a reference to an individual while others claim it refers to a nation summoned to bring about a just world.
Although there are many examples of injustice in the world one urgent issue affects everyone. The future of this planet and humanity depends on reducing and eliminating the causes of climate change which in turn impacts our water supplies.
Scientist Sonja Klinsky points out: “To reduce climate change and protect those who are most vulnerable, it’s important to understand where emissions come from, who climate change is harming and how both of these patterns intersect with other forms of injustice.”
While water reclamation and reuse solutions are helpful they will not eliminate the problem of climate change. Dr. Klinsky explains: “The majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels to power industries, stores, homes and schools and produce goods and services, including food, transportation and infrastructure, to name just a few.”
We Christians are reminded, during these unpredictable times, to change our hearts about the way we live and to join others in accepting responsibility for the apocalyptic impact climate change has on the future of this planet and every creature on earth.
What does baptism have to do with halting climate change and other global atrocities? Everything.
1. Baptismal fonts are shaped like crosses or tombs to represent the death of Jesus. Some are designed as octagons symbolizing the eighth day of the week, Sunday, when Jesus was raised from the dead.
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Opening Doors of Possibility
World Peace Day 2022
Mary the Mother of God and The Epiphany - Year C
Opening Doors of Possibility
The month of January gets its name from the Roman god Janus, the animistic spirit of doorways or thresholds. Janus is the god of new beginnings. This weekend there are three celebrations that help us focus on possibilities for the new year.
The World Day of Peace was instituted by Pope Paul 6 in 1967. This year Pope Francis’ message is called A Culture of Care as a Path to Peace. He appealed for a way to combat a “culture of indifference, waste, and confrontation so prevalent in our time.”
The pope also looked to the future as he wrote: “Consequently, our plans and projects should always take into account their effects on the entire human family, and consider their consequences for the present and for coming generations.”
The pope’s words echoed remarks made by the late Bishop Desmond Tutu in 1992 in reference to the future after apartheid in South Africa: “Together, we must work to transform our society into one that says human beings matter more than things and profits. Our society must set a high premium on sharing rather than on hoarding, on cooperating rather than competing.” 
A second example of how to work for peace and equity on earth is found in the celebration of Mary, Mother of God . It is a reminder of Mary’s role in nurturing the Son of God, who would lift up and save humankind from downfall and destruction.
This feast made its first appearance on January 1st in the 7th century. Author Michael Rizzotti wrote that in Neolithic mythology female goddesses were “cosmic symbols of regeneration and life.” Catholics today revere Mary the Mother of God as someone who nurses them with loving care, perseverance, resilience, and hope.
The feast of Epiphany offers a third way to manifest the presence of God in our societies. The date for the celebration of Epiphany in the East is January 6th (sadly, a nefarious date in American history). This year Roman Catholics observe “Three Kings Day” on Sunday January 2nd.
Only the evangelist Matthew (2:1-12) tells the story of the magi and that text gives few details. Scholars tell us they belonged to an ancient Persian priestly line specializing in Mithraic and Zoroastrian cultic rituals. They were also curious about the fulfillment of the Messianic prophesies explaining why, according to popular legend, these astrologers thought the bright star might lead them to the promised one.
Because the magi were Gentiles this gospel story suggests, as did Paul (Galatians 3:28), that the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate God, was intended to serve all peoples and not just those from certain religious practices or those who were privileged, wealthy, and powerful.
This story “discloses” God in continual action throughout the universe and helps us imagine possibilities for the future. For example, we hope that images from the James Webb telescope will broaden our understanding of the cosmic enterprise. We will be reminded that stars, planets, humans, animals, plant life, and this earth all belong to one “universal” family. Together we look to promote healthy relationships with everyone and everything in this household.
As the calendar page turns a recent CBS News Poll reported that 71% of Americans are hopeful for a better year ahead and 22% feel discouraged. Can religion play a role? The journal Christianity Today reports: “while many (74%) Americans believe the church offers hope, there is a gap in tangible expressions of that hope. Only 53% of U.S. adults believe the church makes a real difference, and 44% view the church as being known for the things they are against.”
Like the Mother of God who suckled Jesus and the magi who were inspired by the Star Prophecy  in the East, Christians can make a difference in the lives of many who are dispirited. We can join others from different cultural and religious traditions to manifest care, hope, resilience and perseverance.
Author and social justice activist Megan Phelps-Roper writes about the value of empathy in dialogue and ways to bridge ideological divides. She recently reflected on what the holidays meant for her.
“I came to see these periodic celebrations not as a denial of all that’s wrong in the world or in our lives, but as a reminder of the beauty we hope to preserve in them— a choice to build on good things, which is both more difficult and more worthwhile than the choice to tear down and root out ….”
As Christians, like others who are aware of the joys and sorrows in the world, we can open doors of new possibilities for all peoples.
1. See Psalm 67 for today: “May the nations be glad and exult because you rule the peoples in equity.”
2. Mary was given the title of theotokos; ie, God-Bearer or Mother of God, at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE.
3. This term, also known as the Star of Bethlehem, refers to the coming of a saviour. It is found in the Qumran texts of the Dead Sea scrolls.