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The 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
The oldest tree in the United States is Pando, a giant colony of Quaking Aspens in the Fishlake National Forest in Utah. These trees are part of a common organism, an underlying rhizoidal stem system that absorbs nutrients and provides strength. They continue to grow and spread in every which way. Some estimate the “tree” is about 80,000 years old!
In the gospel for today (Luke 6:39-45) Jesus shares a moral tale with his listeners. His message draws upon words related to trees (“wooden beams” and “splinters”) to teach a lesson that is relevant for us today. We should look at our own behavior — the beams or splinters in our eyes — before criticizing or admonishing someone else about their actions.
Scripture scholar Brendan Byrne commented: “relations between human beings based on retribution, or even on strict justice, fail to take account of … what is really going on inside another person.” Byrne continued, “the image of the tree and its yield of fruit illustrates the continuity that must prevail between the heart … and external action.” Faith without good works is not a good strategy on the world stage today.
As the parable continues Jesus uses trees metaphorically to describe who is an exemplary person. Good trees do not bear bad fruit and they are known by the fruit they produce. Further, trees planted in the house of God will bring forth fruit even as they grow old. They shall remain vigorous and sturdy. (Psalm 92:2-3,13-16) That’s good news for some of us!
We cannot overlook that Jesus also strongly condemned demonic persons who thrive in producing evil, stealing liberty from innocent people. The invasion of Ukraine made by Vladimer Putin is the latest example of crimes against humanity caused by a malicious power hungry autocrat.
If such evil is uncontested it will affect global economic systems and diminish the livelihoods of people especially those already living in poverty. It will harm and destroy millions of lives.
Why focus on trees in this moment of history? In mythology, literature, and poetry, trees represent life and growth. In his lyric poem “Trees” Joyce Kilmer suggests nothing created by humans can match the beauty of a tree. According to his biographer James Hart, Kilmer was influenced by his faith and dedication to the “natural beauty of the world.” 
The cedar trees are mentioned frequently in the Bible most likely because they were strong and indestructible (Isaiah 9:10). They also provided comfort, fruit and beauty. There is something about the grandeur of nature that inspires and gives hope. Mindful of its measureless wonder we realize the divine creative process is not finished. What is the significance of trees in our environmental and religious lives today?
First of all we have a responsibility to protect them and the entire eco-system we rely on for sustenance. The great Pando grove in Utah is endangered because of human activity. The tall and sturdy cedar trees of Lebanon, signs of that country’s historical resilience, are also in danger because of pollution. The same is true in other countries that allow the industrial raping of the land.
The word Pando, the name of that oldest grove of trees in Utah, means “I spread” in Latin. Like the Pando grove of the Aspen clones that keep extending their reach, churches like ours need to reproduce, to spread our roots, to grow fruit that will “glisten in the world.” (Philippians 2:15d, 16a)
A religion that is rooted in relationships will focus on the needs of its members. It will share leadership and decision making tasks. It will be nourished by memory and imagination. And, like the Pando tree, it will spread beyond traditional boundaries in unlimited directions.
Christianity is one of the older religions in the world. We are not often toppled by storms. Nor are we easily uprooted by industrial or political ambitions. Our lives are grounded in the Christian gospel. Our roots spread deep into the earth giving us a solid footing in society. We are known by the fruit we bear.
Our work is challenging. The world needs religious and spiritual people to work with those whose source of strength is found elsewhere. The task is to spread power and wealth so all people can lead stable productive lives. We move forward and upward so others can benefit by our good deeds expressed simply by the beauty of a tree.
1. Hartley, Marsden. "Tribute to Joyce Kilmer" in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (December 1918), 149–154.
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Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
In Luke’s gospel (6: 27-38) today Jesus presents an astonishing challenge. This part of the sermon on the plain is the continuation of a vigorous training session for those who would follow Jesus, preach his message, and be rejected because of it. Jesus advised them: “to the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one; love your enemies, do good to them, and expect nothing back.
This surely is a counterpoint to the first reading this morning (1 Samuel 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23). We read that it was permissible and actually encoded in the Law to exact an "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." The laws of retaliation in the Old Testament established the right to seek damages similar to the crime perpetrated even taking "a life for a life." Jesus reversed that old law.
One of the hardest things to do in life is to turn the other cheek when someone bullies or murders a person especially because that person is of a different ethnic group, gender, race, or caste. How do Jews forgive Hitler for executing their family members? How do parents forgive those who shot their children in school? How do persons of color forgive those who enslaved and lynched their ancestors?
As we know this is Black History month.  It was inaugurated in the 1920’s to remember the emancipation of slaves and to celebrate the contributions black people make to this country. Today there is a lot of discussion about how much of the history of black people should be taught.
American history has many chapters that reveal our country’s good and bad sides but we cannot overlook the whole of American history. The bible has many episodes that graphically record acts of good and evil but that does not stop us from reading the whole story.
Before the pandemic took hold of our country I had the opportunity to visit civil rights museums and memorials in Alabama. As I stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, I grieved as the images of Bloody Sunday flashed in my mind. The Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s awakened our nation to the reality of racial injustice and hatred that continue to affect African-Americans and all of us in one way or another.
I thought not only of the marchers who were severely trampled and beaten on that bridge but also those people who attacked them. Who were they and what were they thinking? What drove them to do such harm to peaceful protestors, to other human beings also created by God? Would they be forgiven? The gospel today says: Forgive and you will be forgiven.
What was Jesus proposing? New Testament scholar Sarah Henrich explained: “All that power that flows from Jesus … will bring about a very different world, God’s world. The power will level the playing field no matter what rules we have established to create and protect our positions. The thriving of all creatures in God’s realm requires a different ethos from those customarily in place.”
The late John Lewis, civil rights activist and respected member of Congress, was the epitome of this gospel text. Although almost bludgeoned to death at different times he, like other non-violent civil rights activists, whether at a lunch counter or on that bridge in Selma, never once fought back. Lewis urged: “Speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
Jesus got in good trouble, plenty of good trouble, to save people, to pave a path to freedom from all injustice. He cared for those who were sick and oppressed but he also welcomed sinners in the spirit of today’s Psalm 103:1-4, 10-13: “God pardons all your iniquities. God heals all your ills.”
Privatized prisons are filled because we still have an “eye for an eye” mentality about how to deal with criminals. Slavery exists around the world in various forms — child labor, sex trafficking, unfair wages, and the rise of authoritarian dictators. Social inequities, anger, and hate tear us apart.
We can counter these overwhelming atrocities by stressing human goodness. John Lewis advised: "I alone cannot change the world, [he said] but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples.”
God needs us to make ripples, to make good trouble during this chapter of cosmic history. The biblical playbook tells us to be resilient, to work harder together, to act justly, walk humbly, and speak kindly.
In January 1972, Pope Paul VI called justice “a collective and universal phenomenon.” He then quoted the prophet Isaiah (32:17): “If you want peace, work for justice.” We might add today, and … if we want justice, work for reconciliation.
1. Carter Woodson is credited with starting the tradition and selecting February to remember two men who helped shape Black History — Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas.
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The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Jesuit historian James Hennessy (1926-2001) wrote that the Catholic Church was once described as bishops and priests and the faithful who followed the teachings of bishops and priests. The Vatican Two Ecumenical Council changed that. The people of God are the church.
Ideally 1.2 billion Catholics around the world are on the same team. All persons, including those who are ordained, are teammates willing to play together to defeat any philosophy, government or institution that practices prejudice and inequality.
By way of a popular example teamwork is essential in tonight’s 56th Super Bowl game. Coaches and players will be following their standard playbooks. They will also talk to one another during the event to make necessary adjustments. They might even change their game plans.
Our “biblical” playbook calls for teamwork in the game of life. Jeremiah the prophet (17:5-8) exhorted the leaders of Judah to trust in God. He said: “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings.” He wanted his listeners to team up with God.
The elite tribal leaders did not listen and chose to do things their own way. Sadly, Judah was crushed and thrown into exile. In this episode there was not much teamwork between God and the chosen people of God.
We are called to learn the biblical play book to create a life giving game plan for ourselves and others. We are urged to use our talents and our ideas. As Christians we are coached by the Word of God. Win or lose, Jesus of Nazareth taught us how to play the game honestly, effectively, and with passion.
No one of us can win the game of life all alone. We need hardworking coaches and players on the team. In church terms we need smart pastoral leaders who will team up with the members of their dioceses, parishes, and schools.
In our religion, like other faith traditions, teamwork is essential if we are to win against the inequities of the world. We can turn the odds against those who do not play by the rules, mandates that are designed to give everyone a fair chance to win.
Today’s gospel (Luke 6: 17, 20-26) offers a different version of the familiar beatitudes; it can help us understand the biblical playbook. Instead of eight blessings, such as those in the gospel of Matthew (5:1-12), there are four blessings that are coupled with four afflictions. Those who are least fortunate are called blessed. Those who have plenty of power and wealth may not win every game. In the bible … underdogs can be victorious
New Testament scholar Sarah Henrich wrote: “These verses put today’s hearers on a level plain/playing field (v. 17) with all those to whom Jesus once spoke: the twelve, the crowd of disciples and the multitude from all over the area.” All the people of God make up creation and are responsible for sustaining it.
Sure, there are gifted superstar athletes who play better and are paid better than others. But in every “team” game each player on the field matters. A talented quarterback still needs a strong offensive line for pass protection. What makes the team successful is the way all the players communicate with and trust each other during the game. This is what the Catholic Church needs. More teamwork.
Last October 10, 2021 Pope Francis launched a synod on synodality to develop a play book for governing the church in the future. The word synodality comes from two Greek words — syn-hodos. It means walking on the same path together. It could mean playing on the same field together.
This unique synod is not just for bishops. It is an invitation to all members of the church worldwide to have a voice in the governance of the church. It is an opportunity for clergy and laity to listen to one another without being critical or defensive.
Lutheran pastor Katie Hines-Shah wrote: “… we are part of the priesthood of all believers, that whether or not we are ordained, we are called to do important, godly work.”
We want to win in life by following the game plan Jesus of Nazareth gave us. To do that we listen not only to the coaches, the church’s teachers, but also to one another, the players in the game, the people in our dioceses, parishes, schools, and a wide variety of ministerial groups.
The latest odds pick the Los Angeles Rams as a 4 point favorite to win the Super Bowl tonight. Can the underdog Cincinnati Bengals continue their miraculous winning ways? What are our chances of winning out over the injustices in the world? The odds are in our favor when we follow our biblical playbooks and play together as a team.
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The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C
There is the old saying that faith is not taught but is something that can be caught. Today’s gospel story (Luke 5: 1-11) is about catching fish. Some people catch fish to sell or feed their families. Others catch fish for sport and then throw the fish back to the water.
The gospel was written in Greek and the word “zogrein,” which means catching, conveys the idea of giving people life and then helping them to stay alive. Jesus said to Simon Peter, who was a fisherman, that he and others would be catching people — to give them life.
Most religions have doctrines and rules that are meant to guide us through life’s labyrinths. But even though we responsibly teach those commandments in our schools and faith formation programs they cannot make us live in a certain way. How is the gift of faith put into practice?
Inspirational speaker and theologian, Judy Landrieu Klein, wrote: Catholicism has been “caught” for two thousand years … through the habits of a living Church that hands on its living faith via time-honored practices that grow organically and culturally throughout history.
“Catching” is a method for evangelization — sharing the good news of the gospel. This does not mean converting people to Catholicism. It does mean finding ways to change lives, to celebrate God’s love, and to serve others as Jesus did. 
When the elite men of Israel rejected Isaiah’s call to practice social justice (6:1-2a, 3-8) the prophet felt he was doomed. God asked: Well whom shall I send to make things better? Isaiah heard the angels sing out “the earth is full of God’s glory!” Isaiah, his lips burning with a new desire to serve, answered God: “Here I am send me!”
Simon Peter also felt he was not up to the task. He objected to Jesus. I am not sure I can do what you are asking me to do. Paul, admitted the same thing years before this gospel “I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle.” (1 Corinthians 15: 1-11)
Evangelical Lutheran pastor Amy Ziettlow offers some assurance: “As we ponder our own lives of discipleship, we may resonate with Simon [Peter] in questioning our ability to follow Christ and serve … Let us take heart that Christ is with us [and] will equip us with what we need.”
We need a lot of help these days because many fish are swimming away and cannot be caught by dogmatic decrees. However, by our example we can encourage others to catch on to a lifestyle built around the social gospel. The world is broken; people are falling through the cracks; they are looking for lifelines. Can religion respond to their hunger for help?
The research tells us Christian denominations in the United States are showing signs of wear and tear. The Evangelical and Pentecostal churches that thrived in recent decades are experiencing dwindling memberships.
Some surveys reveal that more people call themselves spiritual but not religious. The numbers of those who claim no religious affiliation are growing. About 33% of Americans say they do not pray at all. No matter what the reason the fish are swimming away.
Although the pandemic surely has had something to do with lower in-person attendance at weekly worship it cannot be entirely blamed. While 21% of U.S. adults call themselves Catholic the overall exodus from organized religions has been a slow but steady phenomenon. This is true especially in countries that were fundamentally founded on bible based teachings and powerful charismatic religious pioneers.
Many Christians today are disillusioned with their clergy. Some people anguish over the pedophile scandal. Others feel left out, disenfranchised, because of archaic rules and an exclusive patriarchal hierarchy. Still others are troubled by polarizations within their own congregations. All religions including ours are need of major adjustments in order to survive and continue to serve those in need.
God asked Isaiah for help. Jesus called ordinary people to follow him. We have been summoned to carry on that mission. We go deeper into the sea, to toss the nets of our faith wider and farther to catch new fish and seek out the ones that swam away. Our strategy is to steady our boats, to fill our nets with people who have been hurt not only by religion but who suffer because of dictatorial regimes around the world.
As our nets fill to breaking, so do our hearts burst open to those sisters and brothers brought to us by the compassion and love of Christ. When we practice what we preach the life and mission of Jesus fills our nets — and our lives — with abundance, new hope, and resilience.
1. See Go Make Disciples: A National Plan & Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the US. USCCB, Washington, DC, 2002