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Keep Striking the Rock
Third Sunday of Lent Year A
Homily presented at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, NY
We’ve often heard the expression “you can’t get water out of a stone.” It usually means we are up against enormous odds to get something done. Well, apparently Moses knew how to do so. In the first reading he was told to “strike that rock and water will flow.” And, the water did flow and it kept the Israelites hydrated on their arduous, dangerous journey to the promised land.
According to legend a wellspring was beneath the rock that Moses struck and is known as Jacob’s Well. It is mentioned only once in the Bible, in today’s gospel, where Jesus and the Samaritan woman had a forbidden but life changing conversation. Eastern Orthodox Christians call her Photina which means “luminous one.”
The Jews and Samaritans were old enemies even though they shared borders and Torah teachings. The two groups argued over what was the exact cultic location for the worship of God and they never came to peace, never reconciled. So, it was dangerous for Jesus and his team to travel through Samaria back to Galilee.
But, Jesus was thirsty and stopped for a drink of water in Sychar. The woman he met there apparently was worn down, troubled and perhaps wondering what to do with her confused life. To dwell on Photine as an immoral woman is to miss the point of this gospel. She had no idea of what to expect when she found Jesus waiting for her. Often, when we wonder what to do next in our lives, Jesus shows up to give us advice, to get us back on track, to take us to new places.
Then, two unusual things happened to Jesus and Photine. First, she prompted Jesus to identify himself as the messiah and he did. Scholar Jennifer Garcia Bashaw wrote: “it is the only time that Jesus reveals this truth to another person. That the person he trusts himself to is a Samaritan and a woman is deeply significant.” 
During this rendezvous the woman Photine also learned something life-changing about herself, something that made her feel alive again and that she mattered. She becomes an influential evangelist, a leader among disciples. Biblical scholar John Pilch wrote: clearly, a cultural subversion took place at the well. "Modern social scientists would probably call this interaction [between Jesus and the woman] a cultural innovation.” 
The clear message in this gospel is that Jesus brings about a new way of living for all peoples. Anyone or anything today that prevents living water from nourishing lives and helping people to grow and change, must be removed.
Maybe that scene in Samaria could be considered the very first International Women’s Day. Now an annual event this year focuses on “embracing equity.” We owe thanks to the evangelist John for pointing to the importance of women in a community.
The story about Moses reminds us, too, about those times when we strike the rock and no water comes out? How often has a synodal church called for “embracing equity” so women can experience what Photine did? How often have the global cries for women’s rights been ignored by patriarchal hierarchies who want to keep their power?
Recently, African philosopher Françoise Diarra wrote: “Women have been the backbone of the church when it comes to the hard work … but when it comes to giving the reins to women, it is not so easy. Men are in charge of everything that happens in the Church, and women take a back seat.” Diarra called for a special Synod to address women’s roles in the church.
Jesus was a spirited advocate for equal rights for all people. Photine and other women found new life because of Jesus’s radical action and courage to break boundaries. Each of us is called by our baptism to do the same, to erase barriers that prevent all people from being nourished at the font of living water. We cannot harden our hearts once we hear the voice of Jesus.
Today’s readings about water are important to us at this time of year. Lent is a season for transformations. It calls us to think anew about our baptismal identities as Christians in a secular world.
If we ourselves thirst for life giving water, if we want others to drink the same water of life, we must be proactive. We just have to keep striking the rock!
1. Garcia Bashaw is associate professor of New Testament, Campbell University <www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-commonlectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-42-6
3. Diarra is professor of philosophy in the Archdiocese of Bamako, Mali. https://international.la-croix.com/news/religion/the-church-needs-a-synod-on-women-says-african-professor/17417
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Super Sunday Sermon
JESUS GETS US, BUT DO WE GET HIM?
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
Presented at Our Lady of Grace Parish, Ballston Lake, NY
Millions will watch the Super Bowl tonight and millions will not. Still, surveys tell us Americans are obsessed with football. It seems that the sport is a metaphor for American rugged individualism and the fighting spirit that gave us revolutionary independence. Some suggest, even for those who do not like football, that it is the most popular cultural and social event of the year. Others think we are only interested in the pageantry, the halftime show and the clever commercials.
One commercial tonight deserves our attention. Maybe you’ve seen the ads on social media, TV, the Internet and billboards. “He Gets Us” is a movement created to reintroduce America to Jesus of Nazareth and his radical way of living by loving and forgiving. Tonight’s two Super Bowl commercials will cost about 20 million dollars.
Theologians, pastors and others are suspicious of the movement. Some say it portrays an incomplete and simplistic view about who Jesus was and what he did, that it focuses on his human but not his divine mission. Others are critical of it as a subtle effort to promote Christian nationalism in this country disdaining other faith groups and minority races that have emerged in the course of American history.
In the meantime, last week Pope Francis, with a bad knee and a broken heart, challenged corrupt civic leaders and corporations to stop pillaging the natural resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Pope Francis called upon them to stop child abuse in the cobalt mining industries, to treat women as equals in cultures that breed exaggerated masculinity, patriarchy, and dictatorship.
The pope’s African journey to South Sudan had many agendas. His speeches were powerful reflections that Jesus himself may have delivered if he were alive today. The pope reminded all of us, who often live far away from the injustices in other countries or our own, that the cultural caste systems in the world that divide people in haves and have-nots are driven by prejudice, ignorance, power and greed.
The first reading this morning is from Sirach, a book of wisdom. Originally, it was used as instructions for Jews whose cultural system and values were threatened by dominant foreign leaders and internal conflicts. This passage urged the Israelites to remain faithful to the guidance, the commandments, given to them by God.
Today, many sociologists and historians claim that cultural systems that promote the common good and a decent way of living for all people are slowly being thwarted by powerful and privileged members of society whether in Ukraine or here in the United States.
Is religion helping to heal the wounds? The polarization that exists within our church and other faith groups is also discouraging and troubling for many. Different generations, especially younger ones, are feeling disenfranchised. They are moving away from religious institutions in search of spiritual direction.
The gospel this morning is a section from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It offers ethical guides that are relevant today. They summon us to practice loving kindness toward one another rather than hate and anger. Biblical scholar Melanie Howard, wrote that these are teachings that Jesus endorsed and “can be understood under a larger paradigm of upholding trust and compassion within [the] human community.”
Taking action to end divisions, social inequities, and other injustices that tear us apart can lead to experiences of peace and harmony. This is true not only in our own lives but also in our relationships with others.
The psalmist proclaimed that we will be blessed for doing so. Much later in the Bible, after Jesus died, Paul urged the Corinthians to live by the wisdom of God and not the dictates or empty promises of rulers who come and go. Such good advice for us these days.
These biblical texts are challenging. Whether or not the religious movement “He Gets Us” is the right path toward spiritual harmony, peace and justice in this country remains to be seen. Right now it is an eye-catching commercial designed to invite Christians to refashion their lives after the life of Christ. Maybe Jesus “gets us” but do we get the message that Jesus left us?
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Making Room In the Inn
Preached at St. Mary's Parish, Crescent, NY, USA
Recently, I had a conversation with a young woman who has a Muslim father and a Baptist mother. I asked, somewhat reservedly, if she celebrated Christmas at all. She said not really. But I will get together with my friends and we will probably go out for something to eat.
We read in many studies that different people of various generations no longer practice a religion and do not keep the traditions. They feel left out or disenfranchised. Some say religion does not speak to them about what matters most to them.
Early reports from the Synod in the Roman Catholic Church tell us that young people want to be recognized; they want their opinions heard; they want truthful answers to their questions; they want to have a role in making decisions that govern the church.
The young woman I met believes in God (perhaps she calls God Allah). She told me she prays and volunteers to help others when she can. She is a spiritual person, who has little need for institutional religions that do not welcome her or acknowledge her as a fully human person. In many ways, like Joseph and Mary, there is no room for her in the inn. Many women feel the same way.
There are plenty of people — children, women and men — who feel left out, left behind. They have no place to call home. Immigrants and refugees pressing in at our borders; Ukrainians fleeing their country in fear of the Russian war; Americans in our own cities who cannot afford decent housing. They live in shelters and cardboard boxes on the streets. So many people are not respected for who they are as fully human beings. There is no room for them in the inn.
Jesus’s teenage mother, we read, when she discovered she was pregnant, promised that her son would deliver captives to freedom. Powerful, greedy autocrats would be defeated. Vulnerable people would gain respect and power. Perhaps she had in mind the downfall of the authoritarian rulers of the Roman Empire who saw themselves as saviors and kings. But they only cared about their own concerns.
Before Mary, the prophet Isaiah imagined, “there would be a prince of peace.” The psalmist envisioned “someone who will reveal justice to the ends of the world.” They were hoping for a different kind of messiah who would show the world a new way for people to live in harmony. It would be a victory won by peace and love rather than military might.
Years later, the evangelist Luke, in his infancy narrative (featuring curious shepherds and jubilant angels) noted incredibly there was no room in the inn even for this Wonder Counselor, God-hero.
It is so good for us to gather here, to commemorate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. He grew up practicing loving kindness toward everyone. His powerful but peaceful message was ridiculed by some and spurned by others. He suffered an unjustifiable death for protesting against injustices.
Like his mother Mary, Jesus did what he was called by God to do. We continue to believe that his Spirit and vision for living resides in each of us. This year’s festivals of Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanzaa remind us that we are the bright lights in a world that can be cold, dark, and bleak.
The holidays bring cheer to many of us but not all of us. We cannot cover up the reality that we live in a world torn by unbridled corruption, cruel wars, rampant hunger, homelessness, and hostility.
What do we do now? In the scripture attributed to Paul we heard about the qualities of the ideal church leaders of his time. It says that they are to be eager and ready to do every good work. For us that means opening doors for strangers, and making room for everyone in the inn.
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Where is the Advocate?
Please note that this is my last homily until September 4, 2022 - Labor Day Weekend. Taking some time to refresh -- read new topics, write other essays. Many of you have commented how you appreciate reading a voice from the vanguard. Thank you.
Pentecost Sunday - Year C
For many years I used a 1492 Venetian woodcut, “The Building of the Tower of Babel,” for the logo on my stationery. The mythical story of Babel refers to the origins of multiple languages on earth that prevented people from understanding one another. (Genesis 11:1-9) Babel is a Hebrew verb and means to jumble or confuse. In my work I tried to do the opposite, to bring diverse voices together to work for the common good.
Today is Pentecost. The familiar story in Acts 2:1-11 offers a constructive way to look at the baneful Babel story. The dissimilar groups that gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles  understood the words of the disciples in their own languages. To stress this point, the author Luke went to great length to list all the different ethnicities present.
Theologian Greg Carey wrote: “The pleasure of visualizing this diverse crowd hearing the gospel reinforces the power of the miracle.” Comparing the Pentecost story to Babel, Carey added, “Language no longer poses a barrier. The gospel reverses the misfortune of Babel … it names, respects, and embraces diversity”
Pentecost is a story for our time. The reality is this: we are all linked with different voices from all across the planet. The Internet gives impetus to the notion of globalization where economies, ideas, politics and cultures converge. No one religion or nation can be parochial, nationalistic or dominant in this human ecosystem.
To survive in this age we have to find ways to reach out to all of God’s creatures, to listen to one another, to elevate the unique gifts and identities of all people who wish to live in ways that are interconnected with the environment and other human beings.
The psalmist (104:1, 24, 29-31, 34) begged God: “Send out your spirit to renew the face of the earth!” Some linguists suggest that “advocate” would be a more appropriate word than “spirit.” Advocate, used in one of today’s gospels (John 14:15-16, 23b-26) is both a noun and a verb.
Philosopher and theologian John Kavanaugh wrote that this Advocate is not found in one place, one group or one person. It does not reside only in laws, sanctuaries, hierarchies, sacraments, scriptures, or people who are rich or poor, powerful or weak. 
The Spirit of Pentecost advances new hope for all oppressed peoples whose voices are most always misunderstood or not heard — people of color, women, children, the LGBTQIA+ community, refugees and immigrants. This holy Spirit broke language barriers, blew down walls of division and opened up doors of justice.
As advocates we do not work alone. We advocate for justice by relying on each other’s gifts and strengths. (1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13) Our task is to peacefully synch a diverse human race with the borderless divinely infused cosmic enterprise where there is no geo-theological heaven or hell.
Here and now, a boundary-less cyberspace offers us endless possibilities for communicating with others to spread goodness and not evil. Some call it working to bring about the kindom of God on earth.
In commenting on the work of American contemplative Beatrice Bruteau, scientific theologian Ilia Delio wrote: “Bruteau describes a ‘grid of wholistic consciousness’ whereby the world is seen as a pattern of inter-independence, complementarity, cooperation, friendship, and creative joy.”  Achieving such harmony may appear as an elusive goal but given the evils that confront us it is urgent that we advocate blessings for all.
This ever evolving Advocate is not a “spirit of slavery.” (Romans 8:8-17) It will continue to growl and grow inside everyone of us until at last all are transformed, liberated from whatever holds us back from becoming all we can be, from doing all we can do. We can choose to ignore the Advocate but we cannot avoid its incomparable presence. Where, actually, is that Advocate? It is already deep inside our beings waiting to burst forth.
1. The Feast of Tabernacles - Sukkot — is a celebration of God’s provision for the Israelites all through their wanderings in the wilderness and during harvest time. Today, Jews understand it as a time to renew their covenant with God.
2. Kavanaugh, John. The Word Engaged: Meditations on the Sunday Scriptures (Maryknoll: Orbis Books) 1997. 72-74.
3. Beatrice Bruteau, “The Whole World: A Convergence Perspective,” The Grand Option, 39-52 in Ilia Delio, The Hours of the Universe: Reflection on God, Science and the Human Journey. (Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2021) 99.
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What Are We Doing?
The Seventh Sunday of Easter Year C
Firearms now kill more American children than car crashes, with this country’s gun sales on an unrelenting rise. The National Catholic Peace Movement Pax Christi reports: “Almost half of all the civilian guns in the world are in the hands of people in the United States, who make up only four percent of the world’s population.”
The murder of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, TX has once again raised up a call for more restrictive gun laws. A Gallup poll found that 52% of Americans said laws regarding the sale of firearms should be made more strict, although the numbers differed across party affiliation.
Last week, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr angrily criticized the U.S. Senate: “There’s 50 senators, right now, who refuse to vote on H.R. 8, which is a background check rule that the House passed.” He continued: “I ask you, are you going to put your own desire for power ahead of the lives of our children, and our elderly and our churchgoers?”
Scarlett Lewis, mother of Jesse, who was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook School shootings, has lost hope in politicians and believes Congress will not make gun laws more restrictive. The founder of the “Choose Love Movement” said we “have to do something ourselves.” Lewis now travels world-wide urging everyone to become part of the solution to the issues the world is facing.
In today’s gospel (John 17:20-26) we read Jesus’ final words to his followers before his arrest. Wherever he went, whatever he said, the Nazarene revealed God’s love for people and all of creation. Jesus had hoped to unite everyone around the theme of love, peace and justice.
Jesus’ message appears to be forgotten even by many who profess to be Christians. Disciples of Christ minister and veteran Army chaplain Richard Niell Donovan wrote: “A divided church loses its persuasive force.”
Unity stems from being in a relationship with God and Jesus who are united in the Spirit. It is a spirit that then drives faith communities to work for peace. In writing about God in the midst of pain, theologian Ilia Delio wrote: “When we are united to God, we become new again.” She added that “God will not clean up the mess we have made, but we are constantly invited into a new future.” 
Civic and religious figures have important roles in encouraging people to continue to work for justice and peace. However, as civic citizens and members of diverse faith traditions we cannot stand by waiting for them to actually do something.
The Spirit that hovers among and within us is divine love. We are urged to infuse that exuberance into every aspect of our beings. By the way we choose to live — work, study, pray and play — we can create cultures built on love and compassion rather than hate.
The Book of Revelation (22: 12-14, 16-17, 20) paints a picture of a cosmic realm stimulated and sustained by an eternal God-head — Creator Redeemer, Sanctifier. We are interdependent with this enterprise. Divinity and humanity are united. Caring for all of the fruits of our planet, human and otherwise, is our duty in this relationship.
Finding ways to plug into this measureless, infinite, ever developing, colossal, spiritual energy is a healthy, holistic way to go through life. It recharges us to unite with one another to do something good for humanity and the eco-system of which we are a part.
On the night of the Uvalde shootings, an infuriated Chris Murphy, D-Conn, pleaded with Congress to pass legislation to address gun violence. He repeatedly challenged his colleagues: “What are we doing … why are you here … if not to solve a problem as existential as this one?”
His provocation to end gun violence, to establish common sense gun laws, is a question addressed to each one of us: What are we doing?
1. Delio, Ilia. The Hours of the Universe: Reflections on God, Science, and the Human Journey.” (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2021) 38.
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Utter Peace on Earth
The Sixth Sunday of Easter - Year C
Early last Sunday I posted my homily with a focus on Jesus’ command: love God, your neighbors, and others who are different from you. That same day we heard news about the white-supremacist-hate-crime in a Buffalo, NY super-market. Later, another shooting took place in the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, CA, a Taiwanese congregation.
Those tragedies were two of 198 similar shootings that have occurred so far this year in the United States. The root cause for these heinous evil acts needs our attention. Known as the great replacement conspiracy,  it has superseded the critical race theory (CRT).
Extremist conservative politicians, talk show hosts and Internet trolls disparage CRT while supporting the great replacement theory. They loathe people of color, minorities (e.g., Jews), immigrants, and those who advocate for equal rights for all humans beings.
Vice-President of the NAACP Patrice Willoughby wrote: “Unless there is … a holistic approach to stamping out hatred, we are never going to have the type of society in which people are free to live and work without fear.” Christians and others have work to do.
In this week’s gospel (John 14:23-29) Jesus tells his colleagues they should not be afraid of bringing his message of love and justice to everyone because his Spirit will be with them. Elisabeth Johnson, a Lutheran pastor and missionary in Cameroon, wrote that Jesus concludes this farewell speech by wishing his followers shalom, which “signifies more than the absence of conflict; it is a profound and holistic sense of well-being.”
Those who advocate for justice and peace are called to provide for the well-being of all. Although access to basic goods, security, education, and prosperity are human rights there is a growing number of narcissistic government leaders and domestic insurrectionists who either commit evil acts or encourage them. Their aim is to eliminate anyone who threatens their identity, power and authority. The shooting in Buffalo is the latest example.
Jesus’ primary concern was to liberate Israelites from ongoing oppression. As a Jew he understood the long history of persecution his people suffered; he wanted to stop it. In fact, he was executed because he challenged Roman empirical autocrats and corrupt religious leaders.
While he sought to break down barriers between people of different tribes, Jesus did not have to deal with all the issues that confront us — gun control, women’s rights, human trafficking, global warfare or racism as we know it. His geographical field of dreams was small but his virtual vision was global and eternal. It would replace the old order and laws with new ones. Love and compassion would prevail.
In commenting on the Book of Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23, Methodist New Testament scholar Israel Kamudzandu described what that new order might look like: “The orderliness of night and day, the changing seasons, physical laws, and biological rhythms [would] reveal the presence of God in human lives.” Every person matters. God’s love is abundant, borderless, not contained nor stamped out. Hatred and evil deeds have no power.
And, in the words of Lutheran pastor Sarah S. Scherschligt, in this last book of the Bible “Scripture ends where it begins, with harmony among humans and creation …. Sin is nowhere to be found. Civilization and nature exist together. There is utter peace in all that God has made.”
That day, when “utter peace” dwells on this fragile planet, is what gives us hope. Advocating for human rights is the antidote to the great replacement ideology and other crimes against humanity.
1. The conspiracy is based on ethno-nationalist false news and fears that people of color will eventually take over the United States rendering white oligarchs powerless.
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Go Make A Difference
Fifth Sunday of Easter Year C
One of the popular and challenging hymns often sung during liturgy at the Parish of St. Vincent de Paul in Albany, NY is “Go Make a Difference.” It calls us to be voices of peace, lights to the world; reaching out to those in need. It is not easy to make such a difference in the world these days.
It may be helpful to look back a bit to see how far we have come as we plot what our next steps might be to implement the values Jesus of Nazareth taught and practiced. The situation described in today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles (14:21-27) is a place to start.
Paul and Barnabas worked hard to spread Christianity in Anatolia, present day Turkey. In the middle of the first century that region of the Mediterranean was once called the cradle of civilization.
Under Roman rule the area was prosperous and secure. A theocratic form of government combined obedience to the gods (Zeus and Apollo) with loyalty to the emperor. It was quite a challenge to live as Christians at that time and welcome new members into the community.
Today about 95% of the population in Turkey is Muslim with the majority practicing Sunni Islam. Although Christians have lived there for two thousand years political scientist Ramazan Kılınç writes “their future is uncertain.” Why is it such a problem for Muslims and Christians to live together with the same liberties and benefits without fear of higher taxes, prejudice, or retaliation?
Sean C. Peters, CSJ, wrote recently about looking back at the past and forward to what is to come. “I definitely want to leave behind any sense of powerlessness, the feeling that I make no difference in our world … believing that my actions have no effect in the ‘global marketplace’ lets me off the hook — allows me to pull back into a life aimed more at my own comfort.”1 
Christians and people of other faith traditions believe that God dwells with us, that God walks with us along our journeys. With God “there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain for the old order has passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-5a) Quaker scholar C. Wess Daniels described the new order. “This is the empire of God that is seen replacing the empire of Rome … in the new city, God dwells.”
Many have tried to replace the old order with a new one that stresses service to humanity. Pope Francis, for example, has introduced measures to reform the the governing body in the Vatican. He intends to make it a reflection of the “image of Christ’s own mission of love.”
The pope indicated a need to “provide for the involvement of laymen and women … in roles of governance and responsibility.” It is an invitation to participate in the Synod on Synodality — to raise the voices of the faithful people of God, to make a difference in the life of the church.
Behind those voices is the Golden Rule repeated in today’s gospel. (John 13:31-33a, 34-35) “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” This commandment includes everyone, our families, friends and even our enemies. (John 3:16)
Lutheran pastor Elizabeth Johnson reminds us that the context for this gospel passage is the last supper. Jesus realizes his hour has come and he also knows Judas, Peter and others will soon betray him.
Jesus was most likely disappointed, thinking that his message of truth, justice, and love would be forgotten. To refresh their memories, in an act of humility, he washes their dirty feet and then, at the table, tells them “do this in memory of me.”
Although some think he was just referring to the continuation of the eucharistic meal, he was also saying feed the hungry, clothe the naked, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, visit the sick, give hope to prisoners, love your enemies.
“These are not easy options for Christians,” insists Dominican Adrian McCaffery, but … “rather mandates; they are imperatives; they are characteristic of the kind of life, the kind of love Christ is talking about here … We either love as Christians or cease to be what we are, or what God calls us to be.”
Elizabeth Johnson agrees. In her words: “Jesus could not be clearer: It is not by our theological correctness, not by our moral purity, not by our impressive knowledge that everyone will know that we are his disciples. It is quite simply by our loving acts—acts of service and sacrifice, acts that point to the love of God for the world made known in Jesus Christ.”
We have come a long way in all these years. Our voices and actions do matter. Go, make a difference!
1 Peters, Sean C. “What I’m Carrying into the Future” in Carondelet, May 2022, Vol 7, 17
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Funeral Homily David E. Burtis
St. Vincent De Paul Church
Albany, New York
High above the city of Assisi on Monte Subasio is a mountain top retreat called Carceri. St. Francis would go there to get recharged, to pray, to be still. One of the several sculptures near the hermitage shows Francis lying flat on the ground staring up at the starry night contemplating his place in the cosmos.
Mountains are sacred sites where one gains a higher perspective on life; where Moses met God in a burning bush and later received the commandments; where Jesus was tempted and transfigured, where Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, and the El Capitan wall where Lynn Hill completed her first free ascent.
Like St. Francis, David Edwin Burtis also spent time looking at the stars contemplating his place in the cosmos. He often did so while climbing and sailing; reaching high peaks, catching the wind. David would come away refreshed and serene but determined to share his broad view of creation with others, to work for human rights, and to save the planet.
Using econometrics to analyze relationships between variables in data was rewarding for David. But, no predetermined formula could explain the unbridled excitement he would experience in nature and the adventuresome journeys he would take with Linda and others at his side.
The first reading, from the Book of Ecclesiastes, was written during a time of change and upheaval for the Israelites, a period of history not unlike today. Not everyone was enjoying equal rights, or the benefits that come with liberty.
The passage identifies “time” in terms of life’s ups and downs. In the face of trouble the author encouraged listeners to embrace life as gifts from God — work hard and cry but do not forget to love and play. There is a time for everything.
Jews read the same text from Solomon (Qoheleth in Hebrew) during the Jewish festival of Sukkot when they celebrate joy in the midst of hardships, the enigmatic nature of life for which we are all responsible. Although so minute in the vast cosmos we are all nevertheless here for a reason. David understood that.
This quest for harmony and peace on earth must have been the mantra that David practiced on his life’s journey, what Buddhists call the noble eightfold path, part of the Fourth Noble Truth that leads to the end of suffering. Mindfulness, compassion, understanding, contemplation all result in a lifestyle where wisdom, ethical conduct, and action are the lifelines.
Little wonder then that David would be passionate about saving the planet, rallying for peace, using less gas and more renewable energy, electing politicians who speak the truth. Perhaps David prayed like Francis “make me an instrument of peace, to bring hope where there is despair.”
The passage from Matthew we just heard suggests we should not worry about our own lives because there are more important things that require our attention. David believed this advice. Some scholars say this entire gospel is a subtle rejection of empirical power and religious establishments.
David found that his spiritual development energized him. He believed there was an overarching power that fueled life in the universe, an enigmatic divine power. It made him shine like the sun; it provided him with sustenance to live life to the fullest while helping others along the way. As with many faith traditions, this is also the Christian way of living — caring for the planet and loving one another.
David trekked upward to the highest mountain peaks from which he could envision brighter skies on the horizon. He knew how to tack throughout life to catch the Spirit-filled wind. He could read the currents that would guide him to his diverse destinations and his goals in life. He surely walked in the presence of God in the land of the living.
The reality that death happens to all of us is hard to accept. Here in the presence of David’s deceased body we imagine that the energy that drove David is not dead but continues to work through us. We can harness that power and use it to advance justice and compassion for all creatures. It is the commandment of Jesus the Christ whom we remember and celebrate in this liturgy.
David’s passions were sustained by you, Linda, who journeyed with him through life and lovingly labored to keep his mind and body comfortable as he neared death. David also cherished his daughters Rachel and Sarah and their families. They filled him, I am certain, with hope for the future.
Recently, I asked David if he had any regrets about his life. He raised his eyebrows to say no. Did he have any unfinished business? No, he did not. Like the disciple Paul who, while in prison, wrote to his colleague Timothy, David did his best to fight the good fights — to protect this planet, to make it a safe harbor for his family and all human beings. For his part, David was a faithful person who, now, has finished the race.
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Sheep Are Not So Stupid
The Fourth Sunday of Easter - Year C
Last weekend I gave a talk at the Mount Saviour Monastery in Pine City, New York. The event took place in the chapel while out in the fields countless ewes were “lambing” — giving birth. I asked if they needed help in delivering their babies. The answer I heard was — only if there is a problem … otherwise the sheep are perfectly capable of lambing by themselves.
Sheep and shepherds are used in the Bible as metaphors and analogies. In the Hebrew bible God is depicted as a shepherd who herds and brings sheep to green pastures and quiet waters. (Psalm 23)
In the second testament Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. (John 10:14) Although he may not have actually spoken these exact words the quote points out the importance of the metaphor and how it could serve to identify a growing relationship with Christ.
In the Acts of the Apostles the early followers of Jesus would soon need more than one shepherd to lead them. Their numbers were growing; disciples were criminalized; diverse Christian sects adhered to different beliefs; divisions surfaced. Unity would be required if the young church was to survive. Gifted women and men emerged as administrators of the communities and, as the texts suggest, there was one Spirit.
Eventually, only some leaders were referred to as shepherds who would provide direction, preside at the breaking of the bread, protect the church from heresies, and keep the flock together. Bishops began to carry a shepherd’s crook to symbolize their office.
Scripture scholar James Rowe Adams wrote that the sheep and shepherd imagery in the Bible is problematic. “It suggests that members of congregations are to follow their leaders without question or protest. It assumes that ordinary people are to have no say in the direction the church is taking.” 
It could be deduced from this commentary that sheep have very little to contribute to the life of the church and need direction. However, according to Nicky Ellis, editor of Farm & Animals: “Clearly, the idea that sheep are stupid and helpless is completely wrong.” Ewes can find their lambs lost in a large flock. They can recognize human voices, faces, and emotions. They know which food is good for them. As members of the flock they have a sense of direction even though some stray off the path in search of other experiences.
When Pope Francis described the current synod on synodality as a model for making decisions in the church he said: “In the one People of God, therefore, let us journey together, in order to experience a Church that receives and lives this gift of unity, and is open to the voice of the Spirit.”
The current synod on synodality is a bold opportunity for all members of the “flock” to voice their hopes and concerns for the future of the church. In another speech the pope said: “What concerns all should be discussed by all.” But, for some reason, he left out the part that said: “and be approved by all!
How can the age old understanding of Jesus as a sheep gate, a caring shepherd, have staying power in a time that needs creative and imaginative leaders? If it cannot, it will become more clear that sheep are not so stupid. They are perfectly capable of caring for one another, moving forward, birthing new possibilities. On the other hand, is there still a place for intrepid leaders on the world stage who are honest and humble?
In the Book of Revelation (7:9,14b-17) John of Patmos had a vision of a great multitude from every nation, race, people and tongue seeking relief from the autocracies of his time. He imagined a mystical Lamb (Christ) occupying the throne of the emperor. This was a bold political statement.
Then, in a twist of titles, the text reads that the Lamb [a baby sheep] “will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water .…” Could this be a 21st century call for sheep and shepherds to be interdependent?
Sheep and shepherds can journey together seeking fields flowering with compassion, sustenance, and kindness. Members of all faith traditions can work with those who practice no religion to eliminate the thrones and principalities that deny people justice and their rights to make informed decisions without fear of reprisal.
We are urged to tune into the voice of the Spirit and to speak truth to justice in this critical time when personal and communal liberties are at stake. This type of advocacy is not an easy task. Hope arises when sheep and shepherds, equal members of the same flock, listen to one another and then take action.
1. Adams, Jame Rowe. The Essential Reference Book for Biblical Metaphors. (Cleveland OH: Pilgrim Press, 2005) 270.
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Where Are All the Flowers?
The Third Sunday of Easter - Year C
Every year around Easter time my sister leaves a few potted hyacinths for me. I can tell they’ve arrived as soon as I open the door. The sweet fragrance and wondrous colors make me smile. After they flower I plant the bulbs in the ground and each spring the hyacinths reappear with new life. They do not know death.
These days it seems as if we are in the cold dark season of winter rather than the transformative joy of spring. Flowers and Easter hope offer relief but they cannot actually soothe the real pains of humanity.
In the Acts of the Apostles (5:27-32, 40b-41), the passage assigned for today, the early disciples were thrown in jail and cast out of the region for preaching the values taught by Jesus.
No matter how hard we try to address the gloom of the night we too are up against real and symbolic voices telling us to “stop teaching in the name of Jesus.”
The biblical texts in the Easter season comprise a stimulus package for us. Buoyed up by the testimonies of the post-resurrection followers of Jesus we search for spiritual and intellectual enlightenment to help us move forward to care for one another with confidence and the strength of our common bonds.
After Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross the disciples could not get him out of their minds. They actually imagined he was still with them. The gospel stories say that he appeared three times after his crucifixion. Like hyacinths rising from the cold ground death could not contain the Spirit of the Human One also believed to be divine.
Christian doctrine says we have been rescued by the life, suffering and death of Jesus. Given this belief, as the psalm for today suggests (v. 3:2,4,5-6, 1-13), how do we now turn mourning into dancing? Or in the spirit of the gospel (John 21:1-9) do we dare, once again, to “launch out into the deep sea” to reel in fresh nourishment?
Stirring up both fear and hope the apocalyptic Book of Revelation (5:11-14) reminds us that a person named John saw and heard the voices of angels. Scholar David E. Aune commented that Jewish apocalypses “often reflect a sharp distinction between the present evil age and the imminent future age of blessing.” It is a hope-filled literary message that requires action.
We are the holy spirits who are to give voice to justice and peace today. Our task is to distribute blessings amidst the imperfections of life on earth. Like the bouquet of hyacinths we can temper bitterness with sweetness.
We gather for liturgy to sing hymns, say prayers, and to be in communion with Christ and one another for a common cause. Together we take our Christian message to the streets, to join with others from different faiths, or no faith at all, to deliver hope and promise.
The familiar gospel of John 21:1-19 is not asking us to convert people to the message of Jesus. It is a summons to carry on the mission that Jesus could not bring to completion himself, a ministry of kindness and compassion toward all peoples.
Casting our nets into the sea of humankind is a metaphorical strategy about evangelization not indoctrination. By example we can touch those who are victims of injustice as well as those who inflict the pain. We are in a partnership with God and one another.
We draw insights for our spiritual and intellectual relationships from the blessings we get by living a sacramental life. These sacred experiences embolden our spirits. They rehearse us for living in ways that make others around us ask some serious questions about reconciling differences, obstructing oligarchies, ending crime, feeding multitudes, and respecting diverse identities.
The hyacinth is noteworthy among the many perennial flowers that blossom at this time of year. In one Greek mythology the flower is associated with devotion beyond death. It can remind us of our loyalty to Christian principles. And, because of its colors and fragrance, the hyacinth is also linked to joy, playfulness, and fresh starts. It is a perfect flower for Eastertide. Thanks again, Sis!
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No Room For Skepticism
Second Sunday of Easter 2022 -Year C
Mercy Sunday & Orthodox Easter
This month of April is full of religious celebrations. As Western Christians continue Eastertide, the Eastern Orthodox Church is beginning its Holy Week. Jews are completing Passover and Muslims are in the holy month of Ramadan. Buddhists, Baha’is, Sikhs, Jains and Hindus are preparing for their holy days.
This inter-religious confluence is a rare and remarkable opportunity to appreciate the similarities in major religious groups. The Associated Press journalist Luis Andres Henao reported that many faiths are “sharing meals and rituals” as they discuss “how to help curb climate change, fight religious intolerance and assist people fleeing Ukraine, Afghanistan and other nations during the global refugee crisis.”
What the world needs now is overarching spiritual movement that embraces the teachings of all faith traditions. It would mend the divisions between religions and, hopefully, nation states.
For example, Orthodox patriarchs in Russia and Ukraine are at odds with one another over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Kirill, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, has caused a schism in the global Orthodox religion as he continues to support Putin’s War.
Will a common belief in Jesus’ resurrection soothe wounds and stop the ruthless invasion of Ukraine where Christians are killing Christians? Where is the belief that Easter is a call to celebrate life not death?
John’s gospel (20:19-31) is the only one that records how Thomas doubted that Jesus was raised from among the dead. However, he needed physical proof. Perhaps others in that room, including Jesus’ mother, had their own doubts about what happened to Jesus. We do not know.
Did they think they were seeing a ghost? Reginald Fuller wrote that the “Greek word ‘appeared’ used by [the apostle] Paul to describe Jesus’ visits after his crucifixion was the same word used elsewhere [in the Bible] for visionary experiences.”
The second reading (Acts 5:12-16), written by Luke about 50-60 years after Christ’s post-resurrection appearances, testifies that many signs and wonders were performed by the apostles. The text implies that those who joined the early Christian movement were responding to the needs of others and that they possessed a desire to accept the responsibilities that comes with membership in the church.
Psalm (118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24) reminds us “God’s mercy endures forever” but also warns us that working for justice is not easy and that activists will be rejected. Those who continued the mission of Jesus were undaunted by threats against them and continued their work.
Not every Christian today is responding in the same way to this biblical summons to work for peace. According to the Pew Research Center only sixty-three percent identify as Christians compared to 75% just ten years ago. Also, roughly one-fourth of the U.S. population views Christianity skeptically in varying degrees.
The overwhelming majority of Americans do believe in God. And, while some also believe there was a historical Jesus, and can accept his value system, they are skeptical about his divinity and certainly his resurrection. This attitude has had an impact on memberships in many Christian communities that reportedly are dwindling in number.
Some sources say skepticism is an ancient Hellenistic philosophy that focuses on what should be believed. The modern skeptic relies on knowledge before believing. According to the philosopher Alan Watts many people believe someone or something only if it fits into their preconceptions, however true or false.
Faith, on the other hand, has no expectations and is the virtuous foundation for most religious practices. However, there is now evidence that some people do not possess unconditional openness to what is true.
How can we avoid skepticism? We live in an age when fear, mistrust and suspicion have evolved into a cultural past time. People do not trust politicians, religious leaders or educators and many do not believe in themselves. Yet, there is a common bond among Christians and other faith traditions and what they hold to be true — that the lives of all people matter and should be treated equally with respect and dignity.
Pope Francis said in his Easter address: “May the conflict in Europe also make us more concerned about other situations of conflict, suffering and sorrow, situations that affect all too many areas of our world, situations that we cannot overlook and do not want to forget.” He concluded: “Peace is possible; peace is a duty; peace is everyone’s primary responsibility!”
Easter, then, is about new beginnings, turning experiences of fear, uncertainty and doubt into kernels of truth for ourselves and others. There is no room for skepticism.
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Not All Is As It Seems
The Holy Triduum 2022 Year C
Just before this Holy Week I watched and listened to the French pianist Hélène Grimaud play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor.  According to the program Notes, Mozart did not write many works in minor tonalities, but those that he did were particularly impactful.
Grimaud said they “provide a glimpse behind the mask of jollity [cheerfulness] that surrounds many of his famous works.” The Notes added: “this particular concerto is a symbolic representation of an encounter with fate, where drama and tragedy meet, and an apt reminder that not all is as it seems.”
During this Christian Holy Week we track the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and explore more deeply why his story of victory over evil is still so compelling. The three-act drama of the Triduum reveals that, as a human family, not all is as it seems. Beneath whatever cheeriness [jollity] we might enjoy, we are hurting inside.
Christians maintain that Jesus of Nazareth “died to save us from our sins.” But, the endless sinful clash between good and evil continues to damage dreams of happiness and peace. Greg Boyle SJ offered a positive way to deal with sin. He wrote Jesus is “calling us to joy.” 
In this light, the words of ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer is a moral summons that can help remove the masks that cover up jubilation: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” 
The days of Holy Week are clarion calls to change what should be changed. That’s what Jesus set out to do. It is easy to think that the Triduum is just about the final days of the Jewish prophet from Galilee. It bluntly reminds us that sorrow and joy in the world are inseparable and it is our responsibility to make things better. What can be gained by his death is our concern.
The first act, Holy Thursday, is about relationships. Aware of his imminent death Jesus got together with close friends for a simple supper. He surprised everyone as he washed their feet. Then at table, knowing he was about to die, he explained the symbolism of the unleavened bread of affliction and freedom (see Deuteronomy 16:3). He did the same with the cup of redemption (see Jeremiah 31:32). Jesus identified with the bread as his fractured body and the wine as his spewed blood. He invited the women and men in the room to carry on his mission in his memory.
The liturgy of the eucharist is a powerful reminder that Christians are united in a unique relationship not only with Christ but with each other. We leave the liturgy nourished by word and sacrament to feed those who are hungry for liberty, to wash and heal their bodies, to mend the hearts and minds wounded by war and other injustices.
Behind the celebration of Easter is the gruesome second act, Good Friday. Jesus died an excruciating death on a wooden crossbeam. During liturgy worshipers take turns carrying a large cross to show that all Christians are called to reveal the meaning of the cross to the world.
Other groups mark the way of the cross in city streets stopping at various stations — court houses, shelters, super markets, jails, banks, food pantries. The presence of the cross is a reminder that not that not all is as it seems. Not all people enjoy even basic equities; chances to advance.
The cross Jesus died on is a tree of life, a cue that working for justice can bear good fruit. The continual presence of a cross in many houses of worship reminds us of our weighty responsibility to move forward, advancing the human rights of all. In the words of Pope Francis: “may we not let ourselves be robbed of the hope of a new humanity, of new heavens and a new earth.”
The climatic act in the holy week, Easter Sunday, celebrates the raising of Jesus from the dead. It provides impetus to repair a distressed world. Biblical interpreter Walter Brueggemann called the resurrection “the ultimate energizing for the new future … for the disinherited.”
Like those who first saw the empty tomb we are buoyed up by the constancy of the soul of the Human One that did not die. That Spirit continues to live on in those who embrace his ministry. Easter is not about one person being raised up from the dead. It is a raising up of all people with a fresh ray of joy and hope because not all is as it seems.
1. With the Camerata Salzburg at Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
2. Boyle, Gregory. The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness (NY: Avid Reader Press, 2021) 184
3. The original 1932 quote reads “… things that should be changed” rather than “…things that can be changed.”
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Doing the Best We Can
Palm Sunday and the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth 2022 Year C
Musician Elizabeth Conant wondered why the affable and talented Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins overdosed on drugs. She wrote: “We need to trust that no one is having an easy time of it; this is a hard planet. Human beings are all doing the best they can, just to get through.”
As we Christians begin another holy week we are challenged to embrace the stories of passion and death as if they were our own. Think of the many people around the world who are suffering and dying because of discrimination, starvation and brutal war crimes — Bulgarians, Haitians, Syrians, Ukrainians, and countless others. They do the best they can “just to get through” but, in every situation they need help from others.
Today’s gospel texts are incongruous. First, Jesus of Nazareth arrives in Jerusalem to much applause and fanfare! At long last he was the Coming One who was to save Jews and others living in a distant outpost of the Roman Empire. (Luke 19:28-40) Then the story of his triumphant entry turns ugly as it details the journey of the prophetic Jewish Nazarene to his execution on a cross. (Luke 22: 14-23:56)
Did Jesus ever second guess his mission? Did he think to himself, while riding that donkey, with a feigned smile on his lips, nodding to the prostrating crowd, “God, what am I doing here? Wasn’t there an easier way to carry out this mission?”
Jesus did not finish what he set out to do — bring about peace and justice for everyone. Critics say Jesus failed in his mission. Social activists say we are charged to carry on his task. What role does failure play in the ways we can improve the way we behave in life?
The second testament depicts Jesus as an enigmatic and compassionate person determined to help people who hunger for dignity; he took a lot of risks to do so. Like many prophets in the Hebrew Bible Jesus protested publicly against the status quo. He criticized civic and religious leaders for their hard hearted crimes.
Jesus raised an awareness of the injustices that prevailed in his time. His speeches and actions annoyed elite power holders. They accused him of making trouble and for posing as a king (although he never claimed to be one). He was executed because he was a political activist.
Today’s passage from Second Isaiah 50: 4-7 gives us some background for understanding Jesus’ behavior. It is the third of four suffering servant poems. It lists the qualities of a true servant. One of those characteristics is to be mindful; to pay attention to one’s calling. 
Jesus did what he was supposed to do and it required much sacrifice. Not only did he follow the expectations of his empyrean Father, he also listened to the cries of the people around him and he took action.
In the Bible Jesus is called the Human One. A Jew throughout his life, he never abandoned his humanity. This side of Jesus makes it possible to identify with his life and the good he did; his suffering and his death.
Many people today are forsaken even as they hope for brighter days. Volodymyr Zelensky feels abandoned by some Western countries as well as greedy banking and oil industry executives. But, he continues to take risks to keep Ukrainians free from death and autocracy. Like other Ukrainians he is doing all he can do.
The same is true of the Romani, the Uyghurs, Guatemalans, Afghans, and others living on the edges of society. Millions are doing their best to survive in refugee camps. Others wait anxiously to cross borders into hospitable territories like those waiting to enter the United States.
In his letter to the Philippians (2:6-11) Paul was concerned about whether his listeners would embrace a Christ-like way of living for others. It would require listening to them and finding ways to help.
During this holy week we ponder not just the passion and death of the prophetic Jew we call the anointed One and savior. We recommit ourselves to a Christian lifestyle, making sacrifices and taking risks to help others so they can live without the fear of abandonment. None of us can do this alone but we try to do the best we can.
We can volunteer at food banks and protest at rallies. We can also do other things that matter. Acts of generosity, kindness and compassion, a smile, a hug can make a huge difference in the lives of people who live among us, who are deserted and vulnerable. This is a hard time for all human beings. Many of our brothers and sisters near and far need help.
1. “Attention is the Beginning of Devotion” in Devotions: Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (NY: Penguin Books) 2017
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Yesterday Today Tomorrow
Fifth Sunday of Lent 2022 Year C
If you are looking for something to cast light on a dreary period of history you might find it in the discovery of Earendel. Astronomers say they are looking at Earendel as it existed 13 billion years ago! It was a bright blue super giant star that emerged 900 million years after the Big Bang. Earendel’s luminosity just reached earth and provides a new appreciation for our place in a vast cosmos. 
Will the dawning of this star affect the way we understand what matters most in our mortal lives? Amidst global troubles imagine if secular and religious leaders got together to talk about Earendel. They could marvel at its distant brilliance. More importantly they could talk honestly and humbly about strategies for living peacefully on this tiny planet.
Holding such a meeting to heal the world will take some doing. Diplomatic relationships are stymied because of nationalistic geo-political policies. Voting rights are violated to protect the privileges of powerful castes. Russia, China, Turkey, Israel and other countries have invaded neighboring sovereignties. Sadly, factional warfare is waged globally with and without weaponry.
Earendel’s light linked yesterday and today. Time will tell what tomorrow may bring. We tell time because of the way stars and planets like ours engage in a cosmic dance. Although it is long gone the brightness of Earendel shows the relationship between time and space. It beckons interdependence with our environment and each other.
We are challenged to take notice because there is work for us to do. The prophet Isaiah (43:16-21) reported what God said to the Israelites who suffered greatly — do not dwell on the past because I am doing something new. It is springing forth. Can’t you see it?
Imagining a new world order is hard to achieve given the way we view time. We abide by linear chronological time (minute to minute, day to day, century to century). The biblical sense of God’s time, on the other hand, is not one dimensional. Mindful that we live in a grace-filled time inspires us to bring about the peace that defines God’s kin-dom on earth. Undertaking this task means we see ourselves as inhabitants of this great planet and citizens of a celestial sphere.
But there are many earthly obstacles in the way. COVID-19, inflation, war, political extremists, dishonesty, and fake news have disengaged us and clouded our perceptions. How can we appreciate what we have in the midst of mistrust and fear? How do we move forward?
Professor of Old Testament Amanda Benckhuysen writes that Lent is a time to “come face to face with the mess we as humans have made of our relationships and of this world … [it is] when we recognize how profoundly broken and how incapable of fixing ourselves we are. For it is in this place of helplessness and disorientation that hope emerges.”
That’s what Jesus did when asked to judge the woman charged with infidelity. (John 8:1-11) He altered preconceived notions of justice. Jesus’s response stunned the accusers by daring them to throw the first stone at her. The late biblical scholar Gail R. O’Day explained that “Jesus treats the woman as the social and human equal of the scribes and Pharisees.” What stops us from advocating a second chance and equal rights for all people?
Jesus linked the past with the present and the future. He shunned the old law of punishment. Instead of judging the woman Jesus urged her to respect her own life. He looked to the future and gave her hope.
Psalm 126:1-6 reminds us: “God has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.” But, not everyone is singing this tune these days. We must rise up like the biblical stars of yesteryear to work for justice today so others can live with dignity and without shame tomorrow.
Hope keeps people moving forward even when there is fear of what the future may hold. Ukrainians are showing us what hope is and how they expect to shine again as a free country.
Earendel is an Old English word meaning rising light. Lent is an old Germanic word for spring, a time of renewed growth and new beginnings. The stories about passion, death and resurrection still inspire us during this Lenten and Easter season. Hearing them again we strive to improve our lives and bring new life to others. There is always still time to do so.
1. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains at least 100 billion stars, and the observable universe contains at least 100 billion galaxies.
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Bread of Life & Affliction
The Fourth Sunday of Lent - Year C
Food is mentioned about 500 times in the Bible. Bread especially is used literally and symbolically to describe relationships, sustenance, life and salvation.
Today’s passage from Joshua (5:9a, 10-12) comes after the Israelites crossed over the River of Jordan into the land of milk and honey. Once they arrived God said to Joshua “I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” After that the Israelites ate the “produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain.” (v. 11)
The Israelites survived during their arduous sojourn because they ate a miraculous substance (manna) found on the ground each day. Jews continue to remember their exodus at Passover as they share the matzah, the “bread of affliction,” and other symbolic foods.
Bread is also important in the Second Testament.The miracle of loaves and fish was made possible because people unselfishly shared the bread they had with others. Jesus called himself the bread of life. At the last supper he broke the bread of affliction and called it his body. Early Christians recognized Jesus in the “breaking of the bread.”
Bread is indispensable. It is essential for human survival and relationships. The word companion is taken from two Latin words meaning “with bread.” When Jesus said we cannot live by bread alone (Matthew 4:4) he meant we also need to be fed mentally, spiritually, aesthetically, with whatever gives meaning to our lives. In reality though, the famous proverb means nothing when you are starving.
Between 1932 and 1933 millions of Ukrainians were starved to death in a famine generated by Josef Stalin to collectivize agriculture. His political decrees led to a drop in production of crops and led to food shortages. The Ukrainian word for this historic tragedy is “holodomor” taken from two words meaning hunger and extermination. Historians say Stalin did this because he was afraid of losing Ukraine.
Today because of Vladimer Putin’s cruel and inhuman invasion of Ukraine Alistair MacDonald reports the 2022 harvest is imperiled. “The crop shortfall will extend to the many countries that rely on Ukraine for wheat, corn and cooking oil.”  Putin is starving people to death to serve his own egotistical agenda to reestablish the former Soviet Union. He is afraid of losing Ukraine, like Stalin was. And Putin’s autocratic venom is spreading.
The Wall Street Journal reports the war is also “disrupting food and energy supplies world wide.” Bread prices have increased by 40% in Kenya. People in Turkey are stampeding over one another to get bread. Street protestors in Iraq call themselves the “revolution of the starving.” This past week the president of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, distributed free rice flour throughout that country.
In today’s familiar gospel story (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32) Jesus gets into trouble with law abiding Pharisees and scribes for breaking bread with outcasts. He responds to them with a parable about a lost son and grateful parents. It is a powerful lessen to autocrats around the world about welcoming everyone to the table no matter who they are, where they’ve been, or what they’ve done.
Presbyterian minister Mihee Kim-Kort wrote: “This story gives us a view of the wide complexity of human relationships, as well as insight into the kind of love and welcome that drives Jesus’ ministry.” Those who abide by laws of kindness and compassion are called to heal the deep divisions that keep secular and religious world leaders from being totally honest with one another and their constituents.
In his second letter to the Corinthians (5:17-21) Paul optimistically wrote: “the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” The possibilities for us are endless when we work together for a common global good. What stands in the way is the rise of totalitarianism fueled by unbridled power brokers, greed and fear mongering. We start by protesting tribal nationalistic theories that hurt powerless people.
Maybe we do not live by the bread of life alone but on the Word of God. Let’s try it. Would those of us who are not yet hungry be willing to give up bread and other staples made with wheat, corn, and rice until the war in Ukraine ends? Starting today … I am.
1. Ukraine’s azure and yellow flag symbolizes the sky above and the vast fertile wheat fields below. It originated in 1848. It was outlawed when Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union. In 1992 it was restored as the national flag.