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CAPTIVE NO MORE?
Sixth Sunday of Easter - Year B
Thanks to the nudging of a good friend I am reading His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope. This gripping book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham is hard to read and … hard to put down.
As I track the chronology of the ongoing civil rights movement, I keep asking myself where was I and what was I doing in the 1960s. That was the period when John Lewis and others, in their early 20s, were feverishly fighting and risking their lives for human rights especially for people who are Black.
The life story of John Lewis is rooted in the Bible. Meacham wrote: “For a youngster of great imagination and quickening faith there could be no more moving saga than the biblical epic of fall and resurrection, of exile and deliverance.” From his youth Lewis felt there was no justification, no reason at all, for Blacks to be held captive by a racist culture. And, he spent his life trying to end the prejudice, the brutality, the slavery.
For some people the fear of being held captive, of suffering and dying, is countered with hope, resilience and a yearning for new life. Many believers find strength in the life story of the Nazarene Jesus, his promises and how he himself rose up from vanquishment. Today’s gospel (John 15:9-17) is comforting. Jesus said: “I no longer call you slaves but friends.” 
One commentary suggests that Jesus wanted to have a relationship with his followers that included honest communication and support, rather than tyrannical dictatorship. Jesus trusted that his disciples will carry on his mission (“if you keep my commandments”) in the same way he honored the vision of the creator God — truthfully, kindly, and without compromise.
In the Acts of the Apostles (10:34) Luke imagines that a mission to the Gentiles will result in social integration rooted in respect for the other. Peter appears to accept this task. He encouraged both Gentiles and Jews to associate with one another: “God shows no partiality” he said. This line underscores the constant message in the second testament that God judges no one.
This is why, in light of the Christian calling to work for justice, it is exasperating that so many people are still held captive in our country and around the world. Those who are oppressed are good people who keep God’s commandments and try to live honest, decent, faithful lives. The slavery they experience comes in many forms. Here are some examples. I am sure you can name other subjugations.
Teenage girls and boys controlled by a sex trafficking industry. Street people hooked on drugs. Americans trapped by the need to consume more goods than they need. Powerless families struggling in totalitarian countries. People stereotyped because of color, age, gender, religion, ethnicity.  Couples mired in abusive relationships. Children and adults subject to slave labor. Members of religious institutions disenfranchised by difficult doctrines. And, to the point of John Lewis’s story, people of color held captive by centuries old cultural chains that deprive them of civil liberties.
Something is wrong in this country when elected politicians use misinformation rather than truth to stay in power; when religious leaders rash judge the members of their own spiritual tribes; when citizens, normally helpful in emergencies, can be self-serving the rest of the time; when extremist groups claim that America was founded to be a powerful, wealthy White only country.
The rise in hate crimes  and other acts of insurrection is a wake-up call for us that this republic, founded on democratic principles and the value systems of diverse faith traditions, is about to be held captive by nativistic prejudices driven by lies, power, wealth, and greed. This is not the freedom from oppression that Jesus of Nazareth lived and died for. This is not what John Lewis and others worked for, risking their lives for equal rights in the United States.
In her study of the second testament, Jin Young Choi wrote that the evangelist John "invites us to see the life Jesus has given to the world in the midst of wounds, pains, and traumas.” We are the ones who are healers and comforters. We are the ones who can release afflicted and exploited and misjudged people from whatever and whoever holds them captive.
1. In some bibles you will find the word “servant” instead of “slave” but linguists agree that the Greek masculine noun δούλος is translated as “slave.”
2. The National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) published this statement
3. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the number of hate groups has risen exponentially in the United States since the election in 2016.
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WHO ARE YOU?
Fifth Sunday of Easter B
Years ago I was part of an interfaith team that worked with Navy chaplains stationed around the world. Our primary task was to help them design, use, and evaluate worship services. In one of the exercises we asked them to tell us how they would describe themselves. Was their primary identification based on gender, occupation, vocation, rank, relationship, ethnicity, race, religion or something else?
In today’s gospel (John 15:4a, 5b) Jesus uses yet another metaphorical expression to describe himself — the true vine. It was the seventh figure of speech in this gospel that included: I am the bread of life, the resurrection and life, the light of the world, the sheep gate, the way, truth and life, and the good shepherd.
One wonders if the carpenter Jesus from Nazareth had a little trouble discerning his identity. Or, did he use so many illustrations to help his followers understand who he truly was and what he had to offer them?
Jesus’s reference to vines and branches is pertinent today. Often the passage is explained in ways that are quite demanding. If we do not identify with Jesus or follow his ways we will wither on the vine and be burned in a fire. But, if we bear good fruit we will flourish and be saved.
Once again, as with the good shepherd passage, this portrayal speaks of our relationships not only with Christ but with each other. Commentator Mary McGlone suggests that “By using the image of vine and branches, Jesus explains that we are an intimate, inextricable part of him and of one another.”
We are slowly coming to understand how closely connected we are to other inhabitants and plant life on this fragile planet. The spread of the Covid-19 virus is universal. Climate change has a worldwide impact. No country is isolated from the global economy. Conflicts within foreign nations affect every other nation.
How we identify ourselves as key players in the world will make a difference in our lives and those of our neighbors here and elsewhere. The international vineyard depends on how much we share the fruit each one of us produces in this land of abundance and liberty.
Who are we as a nation? There are different opinions about our identity. Are we an egalitarian republic that welcomes and supports racial, ethnic, and gender diversity? Are we a country defined by a caste system that divides us into racial and economic parcels? Is our national vineyard slowly shifting from being a democracy where all voices and votes matter toward a plutocracy dominated by a minority of the wealthiest citizens?
Who are we as a Catholic Church? The pastoral vision of the Vatican Two Ecumenical Council invited all faith traditions into spiritual solidarity and a liturgical and social action agenda for all to participate in. Are we a synod of laity and clergy working together to maintain an effective voice amidst changing religious, cultural and moral frameworks? Are some privileged patriarchs making solitary decisions that cause feelings of disenfranchisement among even the most faithful Catholic citizens?
The pandemic made us aware of how important our identity as a nation and a church is. We rallied together to care for one another. Parents, teachers, partners, health care providers and volunteers of all kinds stepped up in their respective roles to ease the pain caused by a relentless virus. The biblical text for today both affirms our efforts and challenges us to look more deeply at our identity as people of faith and how that affects our causes in the public sphere.
Theologian Gennifer Benjamin Brooks said the vine and branches narrative “speaks of interdependence rather than the independence and self-dependence so highly valued in these United States.” In this context a social safety net is necessary so that the fruits of our labor are distributed more equally.
The “new deal” set forth by government leaders on the national level aims to rescue those who are just barely clinging to the vine. The plan needs our endorsement. We realize that all of us belong to the same human sheepfold. We can identify with shepherds responsible for keeping the flock safe from all harm. Likewise, we are the vines where branches grow and flourish and are expected to yield good fruit.
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IT TAKES TIME
The Fourth Sunday of Easter - Year B
I watched a movie last week called “Time.” It is a documentary about a Black mother of six children and her 20-year struggle to get her husband paroled. She calls herself an abolitionist fighting for prison reform. At her speaking engagements she argues: people of color receive harsher sentences than White people do.
“Time” as used in this film might mean doing time in prison, the time it takes to be granted parole, or losing time with your children while incarcerated. It takes time to change an unbalanced criminal justice system.
Christians are in the fourth week of Easter time, a grace filled period marking the raising of Jesus. It is presumably a mystical time untethered by chronology. There is no reason to keep the season unless you believe in the risen Jesus. Yet, day by day, we live in real time when we deal with palpable things that happen to us or are caused by us.
Jennifer M. McBride reminds us: “Christians participate in God’s movement in the world through concrete [my emphasis] acts of discipleship that anticipate Easter liberation and embody the good news of the promises of God.” This proactive Christian posture takes time to accomplish. Three recent examples:
The indictment of Derek Chauvin is a welcomed anomaly in terms of police convictions. But it will take much more time to end the racist structure that feeds mistrust and hate. It will take time to find sensitive ways to keep the peace in our communities without resorting to the use of lethal force in every situation.
Though progress has been made to reduce carbon footprints during this Earth Week, even with a White House pledge to “slash U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases in at least half by 2030,” it will take a long time before we find ways to erase our individual carbon footprints.
Vaccines are available to fight the COVID-19 virus but it will take time to reach herd immunity when we can feel safe about going to work, worship, school, and elsewhere without worrying about being infected with or transmitting the disease and its variants.
What does “time” have to do with the Good Shepherd, a nomenclature used by Jesus of Nazareth (before his crucifixion) to describe himself in today’s gospel (John 10:11-18)? The story is usually interpreted this way: Jesus is the shepherd and we are the sheep. Jesus will take care of us if we follow his path. Even when we stray off course the shepherd will seek us out to protect and save us.
What if we understood this familiar meme to designate you and me as the shepherds, the leaders, who can help others find refuge, be free from harm, sickness, and plunder? Not all shepherds are good ones, of course. Some government guides, elected or not, are dictators undermining especially those living on the margins of society. Some clergy are patriarchal, dismissive of women and guilty of abusing the sheep. Some custodians of the peace are prejudicial in their judgements on our streets and in our courtrooms.
There is a need for more good shepherds. Theologian Gennifer Benjamin Brooks suggests that the good shepherd narrative invites us to a “clear understanding of the call to oneness in the name of Christ, and to address and welcome diversity in whatever form it is represented in the wider community.”
Whose stories do we listen to? What is the make-up of our congregations or the people we serve? What color? What gender? What age? The sheepfold in America is not homogeneous.
There is the saying that “time heals all wounds.” The woman in the documentary “Time” implied that that aphorism is ludicrous. There are simply too many open wounds in society that need healing. Time alone will not suffice.  People want justice now. Coming to closure on the divisions and struggles in Congress, in our streets, in our congregations, in our homes and places of work requires action now, not procrastination.
The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (4:8-12) for today is not to be overlooked. The story begins when the Sadducees imprisoned Peter and John because they healed a man who could not walk.
Eventually the high priests were impressed by the healing, the bold testimonies of the disciples, and the crowd of 5,000 who witnessed the miracle. Many centuries later our task is to pick up where Jesus and those early disciples left off, to give testimony to the healing presence of Christ in our midst.
Protests against the incongruities and corruption in our governments, our criminal justice system, our economy, our schools, our health care organizations will slowly diminish and eventually erode the fraudulence that exists in our societies.Time ran out for Jesus.
Time may not heal all wounds but, like the aspirations of the tenacious woman in the film, something can happen. A steadfast determination to offer healing to those suffering from divisions and disparities in society is our vocation. All it takes is some of our time.
1. This is not reference to those in long term treatments designed to help them return to a healthy life.
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ARE YOU SURE?
Third Sunday of Easter B
Have your ever doubted yourself, your partner, your best friend? What kind of assurance is required to eliminate our uncertainties? Do we make up stories to affirm what we would like to believe even though it may not be true?
The day on which Jesus was raised from the dead was a confusing and frightening time for his loved ones and followers. The tomb was mysteriously empty. What happened to this enigmatic and charismatic prophet, the One the Jews thought would surely save Israel? What did they imagine? What did they do?
The gospels record twelve different post-resurrection appearances but are at variance regarding who experienced Jesus after his crucifixion, where and when. Today’s gospel (Luke 24:35-48) features a well-known and dramatic text. Two disciples did not recognize the stranger who walked with them to Emmaus-Nicopolis, about eighteen miles from Jerusalem. 
All the gospels try to depict what the risen Christ may have looked like after being raised from the dead. They seem to suggest that Jesus was transformed and therefore unrecognizable.
The passage tells us the disciples at Emmaus finally came to know the risen One in the “breaking of bread.” After all, a ghost would not be able to eat and drink with them. Were they absolutely sure it was Jesus? Were they experiencing an alternate reality? Or, as the popular author James Martin suggests, were the disciples exchanging “shared memories?”
Scripture scholar John Pilch and others note that such experiences — imagining things happening when they really are not — were common in the Mediterranean world.  Today, especially in the Western Hemisphere, those who experience alternate realities are considered out of touch with the real world. Their claims are difficult to accept.
However, studies in neuroscience suggest that “we all create our own concept of reality … we tell stories to resolve any cognitive dissonance.” If we believe in the Easter stories how are they relevant today? According to ethicist and theologian Jennifer M. McBride  we are pressed “to give an honest account of whether or not we believe the testimonies of the women and men” in the resurrection stories. The women who went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus found it empty. Peter and the other male disciples did not believe the women. The disciples at Emmaus did not believe Jesus was raised from the dead until they ate with him. How could they be sure?
We will never know if the disciples really met the risen Christ or if they were having an alternate reality experience. What we do know is that years before the formulation of creeds or doctrines the post resurrection believers were assured the presence of Christ was burning within them (Luke 24:32).
Inspired by Jesus’ transformation these very early leaders themselves were changed. They put their fears aside and set out slowly to spread the “good news” to others regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or religion. Do we share that same assurance, that burning desire? What actions do we take?
Do we recognize and believe those who want us to listen to their stories today? What wisdom and practical advice can we offer? How do we help them move forward with their lives?
David Brooks wrote last week: “Wise people don’t tell us what to do, they start by witnessing our story. They take the anecdotes, rationalizations and episodes we tell, and see us in a noble struggle.” Our mission, then, is to first listen to the stories of others to understand what they are going through. Then, and only then, can we be helpful to them.
Do the mothers of Black children have the assurance that we really understand that their sons and daughters are in harm’s way because of the color of their skin? How do we prove to them that we are listening and willing to protest racist brutalities?
Do prisoners confined in our public and private correctional institutions have the assurance that we understand their plight? How do we prove that we support them and will rally against their detestable conditions?
Do the thousands of children in these United States who are hungry, homeless, and victimized by the sex trade have the assurance that we are even aware of their dire situation? How do we prove to them we can offer them sustenance and shelter?
Whatever our interpretation of the post-resurrection stories is do we have the assurance that the risen Christ abides deep within us today? What Spirit-filled energy do we use to show others that the One raised up walks with us not as a stranger but as one who works through us to protect and preserve the dignity of every person.
1. There were several towns named Emmaus at the time. Most scholars agree Emmaus-Nicopolis was the village mentioned in the gospel.
2. Pilch, John. The Cultural World of Jesus: Sunday by Sunday Cycle C (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1997) 67.
3. McBride, Jennifer. Radical Discipleship: A Liturgical Politics of the Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017) 188-89.
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Second Sunday of Easter B
We live in a time when the words “true” and “false” have divided many of us. What is a fact for some is a lie for others. In many instances, doubt replaces reason. Prove the 2020 election was not stolen. Prove the vaccine is effective and safe. Prove it will be sunny and warm tomorrow.
The same is true in religious discussions. Prove that God exists. Prove the world was not created in seven days. Prove that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead. Prove there is eternal life.
The second testament authors worked hard to prove Jesus’ resurrection. Written after the fact, however, the texts contradict each other in terms of when and where Jesus physically appeared. They do not agree on how many followers experienced him physically after he died, either by touching or speaking with him.
In today’s gospel (John 20:19-31) Jesus appears to the disciples and instructs them to carry on his mission of reconciliation. Thomas was not there and did not believe that his colleagues saw the risen One. He wanted proof. As the episode goes, one week later, Jesus arrives again and Thomas touches him. In conversation Jesus adds, you have seen me, Thomas, but, “blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
There continues to be a fascination with post-resurrection stories enhanced by prose, poetry, music and art down through the ages. Even though no one was actually there to witness the resurrection, the stories about the empty tomb, the gardener, the angels, the women, the supper at Emmaus are narratives that evoke faith and imagination.
We want to believe these stories. As Paul wrote “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” (1 Cor 15:14) Given this statement, it logically follows that there would be no Christian church unless the life of Jesus was stimulus enough to inspire his followers to organize themselves and carry on his mission and message.
Most Christians do not worry about the details of the resurrection. On the other hand, theologians and scripture scholars have been obsessed with whether or not proving the raising of Jesus from the dead matters in the real world. One of the most influential theologians of our time, Prof. Hans Küng, who died last week, questioned this doctrine and many others.
Germane to this week’s biblical texts, Küng claimed, for example, one could believe in the resurrection and the promise of eternal life without believing in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He wrote, “the Easter stories, with their time-conditioned restraints in form and content, are meant to illustrate, make concrete and defend the reality of the new life of the risen Christ.”  This statement is something the disciples and Thomas would not have understood. They wanted desperately to believe and imagine what was to them an unbelievable and unimaginable event — Jesus raised from the dead.
Küng continued, “I can believe in the truth of Easter without having to accept as literally true each and every one of the Easter stories.” What really matters according to Küng is the “reality of God” acting then and now. The raising of Jesus then is not about a historical event. It is about an experience of transcending space and time, “a radical transformation into a wholly different, unparalleled, definitive state: eternal life,” wrote Küng.
Theologian Roger Haight adds this thought: “Jesus died into God’s continuous loving, creating, and life-sustaining embrace. Creation and resurrection are not apprehended and affirmed in the same way we perceive worldly events. Resurrection is not something that human beings know about, but an object of faith and hope.”  When practiced, these virtues create opportunities for our own transformations.
How then do we, as Easter people, prove our faith and hope now when so many life and death issues confront us? To whom or to what are we giving witness to? How do we give testimony about our experience of the risen Christ walking with us today? The first reading (Acts 4: 32-35) provides us with a model. “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.” Working for the common good, an end to all social disparities, is the mission.
The kind and selfless acts of so many during the pandemic are proof that the majority of people in this country and elsewhere in the world are not filled with hate but love of humanity. Countless persons, whether inspired by the Easter story or some other value system, have joined forces to rescue those among us who are experiencing suffering and death in one form or another. Theologian Ilia Delio wrote: “Easter is the sacrament of a new consciousness, a new awareness of belonging to God, creation and of one another.”
Now, all we have to do is prove it by the way we live.
1. Küng, Hans. Eternal Life:Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem. Trans. Edward Quinn (NY: Doubleday, 1984) 102-03.
2. Haight, Roger. Christian Spirituality for Seekers: Reflections on The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. (NY: Orbis 2012) 246.
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RESIST. REPAIR. REGENERATE.
The Holy Week Triduum 2021
Regenerative design is a pivotal objective in the practice of architecture. It is part of a movement for change … to transform the practice of architecture … to achieve a zero-carbon, resilient, healthy, just, equitable future for everyone. “… It is using the influence we have to improve the world, whether through social justice or environmental health,” says Ann Kosmal, FAIA.
During this Holy Week I wrestle, as others have, with its effectiveness in our lives. Does the enactment of the holy week rites have anything to do with social action? I wonder what it would be like if religions in general and the Catholic Church in particular adopted a strategy of regeneration to transform themselves to achieve a more resilient, equitable future for everyone?
Why ask these questions this Holy Week? Why not just focus on the biblical texts and hymns as they have been handed down to us? Why not carry out the rituals as they are prescribed in the books without any question? Can traditions evolve?
For years, during this springtime cornucopia of religious festivals, I had the privilege of joining some Jewish friends at their seder meal on the first night of Passover. Every year this family would produce its own contemporary Haggadah, the narrative that recalls the passover of their ancestors.  Along with the traditional text it included interpretations of current events and actions that continue to oppress people denying them human rights.
The biblical narratives for Holy Week (albeit written some 60 years after the events reported) serve to memorialize the final days of Jesus’s life. What if the ritual books (prayers and hymns) were changed to reflect the issues we are dealing with today? What if they challenged us more directly about our behavior in the public sphere?
Holy Thursday, is the memorial of Jesus’s final supper before his execution. The gospel of John focuses on service without mentioning the meal itself. The most familiar phrase in the three synoptic gospels lingers in our minds: “Do this in memory of me.” These words are formally interpreted in some Christian churches as the institution of the eucharistic liturgy and a ministerial priesthood.
In context, however, the word “this” refers to what Jesus did in his lifetime. Jesus identified with the broken bread and poured out wine. The elements reminded Jews of the manna in the desert and the blood of the lamb sprinkled over them to forgive sins. For Jesus they were powerful symbols of a fractured and bloodied humanity. Jesus was pleading with his followers to love one another and to resist all injustices in society just as he did. The evangelist John focuses on this call to service by describing how Jesus washed the feet of his followers.
Good Friday prompts us to remember and reconcile the evils of capital punishment and other related injustices. Jesus was executed on a cross for his opposition to the Roman government, an act of sedition. His ambition was to bring about the realm of God on earth. He was accused of heresy by religious leaders.
The popular explanation for his death is that “God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).  This promise remains and requires ongoing social action to make it a reality. Some local evidence is encouraging.
Twenty-two states have abolished the death penalty and the numbers of executions are at an all-time low. However, racial, ethnic, religious and gender discrimination continue in our streets, court rooms, and prisons. Recent actions in New York State will counter two injustices against inmates: vaccination of all inmates and the passage of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT).
The cross in our midst, the cross we venerate, is a powerful symbol of hate crimes, racism, and social disparities. We grasp the cross to take on those problems as our own. Will our prayers, songs, and sermons focus on these issues and other injustices?
The Easter Vigil and Easter Day celebrate Jesus as the victor over death. However sobering and disappointing the reality is, the resurrection of Jesus did not end war, crime, disease and death. In the words, of scholar Raymond Brown, “we may have to carry the cross and experience suffering and rejection before we reach a real understanding of the Jesus in whom we say we believe.” 
The rituals for the Easter Vigil prompt a courageous and radical response that resounds way beyond the alleluia choruses. The lighting of the fire, the reading of familiar first and second testaments, the initiation of new members, the renewal of our baptismal promises, and the sharing of the eucharist are ceremonial stimulants for the regeneration of the Church and, in turn, society. These liturgical actions ignite a new desire to act against injustice. They beg a recommitment to eradicate oppression. They unite us in our Christian values.
We are emboldened in invoking God’s blessings during this Great Week to ask more questions and take more actions to end civic and religious policies that continue to hold back an equitable future for everyone, the experience of God’s realm on earth.
 Created by Rabbi Larry Hoffman and Joel Hoffman
 The Inclusive New Testament by Priests for Equality,157.
 Brown, Raymond. “How to Read the Resurrection Narratives” in Catholic Update, (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Press) March 1994
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PASSION SUNDAY PARADOX
Palm Sunday of the Passion of Jesus Christ 2021
The newly released movie “Flannery” reminds the viewer how the famous Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor used paradox in her writings. She often employed grotesque imagery such as physical deformity to gain the attention of the reader and reveal her own constructive thoughts on issues such as suffering, racism and socioeconomic disparities. The protagonists in her writings included “outsiders, prophets and sinners seeking truth and redemption,” people like you and me.
Today is Palm Sunday when some Christians recall the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a paradoxical portrait of the incarnate God called to free humanity from sin and damnation. The story is compelling because it interlaces jubilation and death, suffering and hope. The same messianic hero who entered Jerusalem to the applause of Jews and non-Jews alike is, at once, the suffering servant who encounters torture and execution.
The story has endured for centuries because we are intrigued by two acknowledged but contradictory assumptions — Jesus dying at the hands of humanity to save humanity. Did he die to save us from ourselves and the collective sinfulness we are responsible for? Does this mean we, ourselves, are complicit in the passion and death of Jesus? Living in the midst of paradox  is characteristic of life in America. How do we respond to prevailing incongruities in this society?
We have plenty of grain in our silos but food insecurity is uncontrolled. Equal rights and voting rights are part of our Constitution but whole classes of citizens are deprived of these entitlements. The economy helps wealthy people get wealthier but unemployment numbers are on the rise. Lady Liberty says “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free ….” but worn out immigration laws and hate crimes stymie the ambitions of anyone who is not white or for whom English is not a first language.
This week is a festival of religious traditions for Jews, Christians and Hindus. These occasions help us recall our own mission, purpose, meaning, and identity. At their Seder meals Jews focus on the Passover narrative (Haggadah) to remember their ancestors’ interminable journey from slavery to freedom. Jews identify with this event that empowers them to continue the struggle for liberation from all forms of oppression.
For Christians our emphasis is on the passion and death of an innocent man who by his actions and words brought health to sick people, kindness to outcasts, and forgiveness to sinners. The Easter event gives people energy to carry out these acts of mercy today in the face of viruses, prejudices, war, hunger, homelessness and domestic violence.
For Hindus the feast of Holi celebrates the arrival of spring, the end of winter, the blossoming of love. The sources say it is a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships.
All three of these holidays fit well together as interfaith agents of memory, restitution, and action. The holy week story is not only about Jesus. It is also about humanity at large — our lives, good works, and bad deeds. It is about our experiences of suffering, dying and rising up again. How do we embrace this story as our own?
Think of the characters in the passion narrative who stood by Jesus during his final days. “These supporters offer us models for how we should live as Christian witnesses.”  Our relationships with God and one another are linked. One is weak without the other. Think of the disciples who abandoned Jesus. The connections we make are not only with family members and like minded friends. How we associate with others who are different from us is also important if this Holy Week is to have any meaning in the modern world.
Jesus lived to be in solidarity with all people no matter who they were. Like Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King Jr. that itinerant Jew died as a public figure who believed that the world could be a better place for all people. He did his part to make the realm of the Creator God a reality on earth. It is that same Spirit of Christ that impels us to act knowing that every choice we make has some kind of a cost.
 Irony, on the other hand, is the use of words to express something other than their literal intention.
 Jaime L. Waters, scripture scholar at DePaul University
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DEALING WITH REALITY
The Fifth Sunday of Lent - Year B
No matter how much I flew while working as a liturgical designer I was never comfortable with turbulence. I had no control over it and just had to sit back, tighten the belt and ride it out. A pilot once described it as “mere bumps in the road.” Right. I spoke about my uneasiness with turbulent skies during one of my project meetings. A Catholic sister on the staff said to me, “just think of it as God rocking you safely in his [sic] arms.”
In commenting on this week’s biblical texts, Mary McGlone wrote, “It seems that our life is one continual process of becoming our true selves; we are molded by our responses to events over which we have varying degrees of control.”
In today’s gospel (John 12:20-33), we read about the time Jesus of Nazareth confronts his forthcoming death, something he had no control over. He must have been thinking, “Is there anyway out of this mess or is this what I am meant to do … to challenge the injustices all around?”
Jesus had to find a way to cope with the reality that the authorities wanted to get rid of him. He had to dig deep into his own being to recall that his purpose in life was to free up people from all oppression. The same is true for us. Learning to accept both the good and the bad in life is linked to how we view ourselves and our purpose in life. God uses everyday ordeals to test our tenacity, our faith, our moral fiber.
Jesus was arriving in Jerusalem for Passover. A huge crowd of Jews and non-Jews was there to greet him. God’s plan for peace and justice is designed for all creatures of God and not just a few. Jesus’ ambition was to reveal the presence of the Creator God through a witness of kindness, gratitude, and blessing. But why did he have to die?
According to Greek scholar Alicia Myers, “For [the evangelist] John, Jesus’ mission is indeed this in-gathering of the world, but it will come about only through his death and resurrection … Jesus reminded us, she wrote, “we cannot avoid darkness and death, but instead, must trust that God will bring about life.”
Perhaps, in his final days, Jesus was more accepting of the divine plan that he would be the One to claim victory over sin. Although he questioned God while suffocating on the cross (“Why have you abandoned me?”) Jesus ultimately accepted the reality that his spirit, his life on earth was over. John’s gospel says that Jesus admitted to some of his closest followers, a “grain of wheat must die in order to produce much fruit.”
As we deal with realities in our own lives how are we to continue the work started by Jesus but not fully finished? The first reading from Jeremiah 31:31-34 offers a key word — obedience. Jeremiah pointed out in this “Oracle of Salvation” that God will establish a new covenant with Judah and Israel. It will be unlike the Mosaic one that fell apart because of the people’s collective disobedience.
The new deal would require a transformation on the part of the people. They were invited to enter into a new long lasting relationship with God that included being obedient to the commandments. In turn God would bring them safely home to the promised land, free of subjugation. Do we know God well enough to trust that God is “rocking us safely in God’s arms” especially in turbulent times?
The second reading from Paul (Hebrews 5:7-9) explains the word “obedient.” Although Jesus had a difficult time in accepting the reality in front of him he had to learn how to accept his destiny. Suffering and dying was something he had to endure for the sake of others. Jesus was obedient to that “divine” expectation.
Plenty is expected of us today. And, although we cannot control everything that happens to us or others, we are summoned to deal with countless realities in front of us. One example among many is fresh in our minds. In 2019 the Department of Justice reported there were 7,314 hate crime incidents in the United States involving 8,559 offenses. Further, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported there were 838 domestic hate groups in this country in 2020. Bias-based hate crime continues to plague us, the most recent one being the murders in Georgia.
As spring dawns upon us we continue the Lenten journey with renewed hope. We still have time to grasp the realities of our own time and to find ways to accept our responsibilities, actions that are necessary and even urgent. We are expected to protect all of God’s creatures regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or social status. Attention is needed particularly towards those who are visibly and invisibly vulnerable. They are waiting to be acknowledged and met with acts of love, generosity, and kindness.
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Fourth Sunday of Advent B
Last fall, on Gaudete Sunday, I asked what is there to be joyful about during the pandemic. Today is Laetare Sunday on the Catholic liturgical calendar. Laetare also means “rejoice.” This time, with warmer weather and more daylight in our hemisphere, our moods are shifting just a bit. More adults are “fully” vaccinated, COVID-19 cases are down, venues are slowly reopening, some of our kids are playing sports and others are making their way back to the classroom.
Originally, Laetare Sunday offered some respite from the rigors of Lenten penances. I am not sure we can relax yet. We are still bedeviled by suffering and sorrow due to the pandemic. Thousands of Americans are out of work, the food distribution centers are feeding hungry households, too many people of color have not been vaccinated, and women, especially single moms, are bearing the brunt of all these hardships. Prayer alone will not help them.
In the Anglican tradition today is called “Mothering Sunday” (Gal 4:27). It began as a time to honor mothers and, later, affectionately, mother nature, mother of God, and mother of us all. The biblical reason for the commemoration is found in today’s Introit (a hymn at the start of liturgy) that describes motherhood as a metaphor for Jerusalem, the shining city on a hill in the promised land. It reads:
“Rejoice, O Jerusalem; and gather round, all you who love her; rejoice in gladness, after having been in sorrow; exult and be replenished with the consolation flowing from her motherly bosom.”
Mothering is essential during difficult times. However, new research tells us that demotherization is affecting households everywhere. This socio-political term describes how the traditional roles of families and motherhood are changing. The research addresses gender inequalities in nations where income inequity continues to grow. Instead of entire families pitching in to help one another, care giving has fallen on the shoulders of women in spite of help from government agencies. Women in low income families suffer most of all.
Like Mothering Sunday the month of March honors the history of women and girls who have built, shaped, and improved this nation. (I am writing this on Harriet Tubman Day.) This year we are mindful of how women in general and mothers in particular are carrying extra responsibilities exacerbated by the pandemic. They work, shop, cook, clean, home school and try to take care of themselves all at the same time.
In his season of lent there are particular emphases on suffering. A line in today’s gospel (John 3:14-21) provides the traditional explanation for Jesus’s suffering and death. God gave up Jesus “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” How does this actually happen since there is little evidence that the world is on its way to salvation? According to Alicia D. Myers Jesus’ dying on the cross is not about defeat and despair, but as “the place of life, the sign of God’s profound love for creation.”
Paul nudges his non-Jewish readers to take action in today’s letter to the Ephesians (2:4-10), which was written before the gospel of John, which was also written in Ephesus. Paul’s missive helps us focus on the season of Lent as a contemporary time for renewing our covenant with God and one another. The text reads: “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance.”
If the cross paradoxically stands for sorrow and death at the same time it represents life and hope then there is still work to be done. A lot of mothering is required. Second Testament scholar, Marilyn Salmon, wrote: “Opportunities stretch from our doorstep around the globe.” They require, in her words, that we “move outside our comfort zone to make a public confession of our faith.”
Women have been mothering, caring for others, in every society throughout human history. In church circles they have served many roles without formal anointing or gratitude. Mothers of us all, these women nurse us with joy and happiness even in the midst of sorrow and suffering.
In her poem “Kindness” Naomi Shihab Nye casts wisdom on how the gift of kindness wards off sorrow.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore ….
Laetare Sunday is a day of restrained rejoicing inspired by the contributions of all the women mothering those of us who, like them, know sorrow. We join them with this hope: In the end “it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.”
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SPIRITUAL TEMPLES NEEDED
Third Sunday of Lent B 2021
In the Hebrew Bible it is written that the Israelites carried the Ark of the Covenant with them as they journeyed to the promised land. It reminded them of their agreement with God. If they kept the commandments (Ex 20:1-17) God would stand by them against all enemies.
In time, the Israelites constructed a Temple for the purpose of prayer, praise and sacrifice. The Ark of the Covenant was permanently housed there. After Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians, destroyed that First Temple the Israelites built a second one. Later Herod would rebuild and enlarge it. John’s gospel for today (John 2:13-25) was written decades after the Romans destroyed that Second Temple in 70 CE.
By the time of the Second Temple many Jews were scattered from Asia Minor to Europe. They were still obliged to make a pilgrimage to the Temple Mount to offer sacrifice and purify themselves in the Temple baths in preparation for Passover. Some brought their own animals for sacrifice. Others would buy them from local merchants. The area was teeming with activity like any marketplace overwhelmed by huge crowds.
Free lance journalist Tia Ghose reported that Jerusalem was a bustling metropolis at the time [of Passover] and “the city's economic heart was the Holy Temple, the only place where Israelites could sacrifice animals as offerings to God.” Apparently, archeological discoveries of dumping grounds outside Jerusalem suggest that slaughtering these animals was a big business. Passover was good for Jerusalem’s economy so why did Jesus create such bedlam in the Temple precincts?
Jesus observed and interpreted the corruption and greed surrounding the feast of Passover as emblematic of the degradation of the Temple and its precinct. An angry Jesus protested and, in a reference to his body, shouted, “destroy this temple and I will build it up in three days!” Jesus thus signaled an end to the old order of law and worship. The new emphasis would be on the Body of Christ.
In the words of Mary McGlone “driving corruption from the temple was just the surface of Jesus' message that day.” What really annoyed the authorities was Jesus’ prophetic proclamation that “he, a human being, was the new temple … that encounters with genuine humanity offers an experience of the real presence of God.” Greek scholar Alicia Myers adds: “Jesus Christ is the location of God’s glory rather than the temple building in which he stands.” This statement also reminds us that our church buildings are not dwelling places for God. God’s presence is a spirited radiance shining within us.
What then causes us to be outraged? What cultural-socio-political-religious structures need to be torn down today to make space for reconstructing societies and religions? Some are familiar: the growing gap between wealthy and poor people, child abuse and human trafficking, white supremacy, racism, sexism, outdated immigration laws, restrictions on voting rights,  climate change denial, and on the religious page, a resurgence of clericalism in church ministries.
On the world stage Pope Francis is doing his part to dismantle injustices and corruption. His visit to Iraq was a historically and politically difficult mission. He went there to encourage Christians who have been devastated by mass killings and ongoing religious oppression. He spoke with empathy in the Syriac Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad where 48 martyrs were executed in 2010.
The pope’s visit was ladened with symbolism and a global message about working for peace in the Middle East. He aimed to give hope to the people urging them to regain their dignity, their human rights. He focused on healing the relations between Christians and Muslims that are still severely strained.
Papal trips help shape the world view of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis has a far reaching vision for a safer, kinder, egalitarian world and wants his church to be an example. While we are grateful for this perspective, we wait for what also is necessary in a church based on human dignity.
The Catholic church can be a model only when all of its members, women and men alike, are seen as equal partners and leaders in worship, mission and administration. This collegial vision is stymied by outdated doctrines, the limits placed on women just because they are women, patriarchal clerics and a traditionalist minded laity. Many have lost sight of the primal Christian commandment to treat one another equally.
Our covenant relationship with God and each other matters. We are summoned to be the temples of the holy Spirit God, living stones witnessing to the mission and message of Jesus. (1 Peter 2:4-5) As avowed members of this mystical cohort we embody and mirror God’s glory with gratitude. As spiritual temples we become mindful of ourselves and others. Then we are inspired to take action for the common good.
We cannot impatiently take off our masks while the SARS CoV-2 virus is still with us. We also cannot cover up our radiance during times that are both troubling and promising. Our enduring commandment is demanding, necessary, and simple: love one another.
1. Today March 7th is the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. In 1965, 600 marchers protesting for voting rights were attacked and brutally beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL. The Voting Rights Act became law on August 6, 1965.
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Suffering and Sacrifice
Second Sunday of Lent 2021
While working on the renovation of the Motherhouse Chapel of the Ursuline Sisters in Maple Mount, Kentucky I learned about one of their members Sister Diana Ortiz who had worked in Guatemala. She went there to teach little children “to understand the Bible in their culture.” Ortiz knew her mission would be dangerous. The intentional killing of women or girls just because they are female continues in Guatemala even now.  Ortiz was gang-raped and tortured in 1989 prior to her escape.
Sister Diana, 62, died last week after a long battle with cancer. This human rights activist should be declared a saint right away. She is one of many admirable examples of a Christ-like person who suffered affliction while carrying out her Christian calling.
My religion tells me that suffering is one of the characteristics of our baptismal identity. It is the cost of our discipleship. Living up to this attribute is not at all like sacrificing movies, travel, or desserts during Lent. This season, instead, prompts us to give new energy to our baptismal covenant.
Primarily, we are called to build up the realm of God on earth, the mission Jesus did not finish. His primary objective, to save Israel from oppression, was thwarted. He was executed because he preached and practiced justice for all peoples regardless of tribal membership. The odds against fulfilling that mission are still overwhelming.
In today’s gospel (Mark 9:2-10) Jesus and some of his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem where he told them he had to die. However, what they experienced on Mount Moriah was not suffering and death but a “transfigured” Jesus. The theophany, the appearance of Jesus in glory, was unexpected. The three men were stunned and did not understand what the vision was all about.
Professor of religion and culture, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, wrote: “The Markan Jesus tries to prepare his disciples for transitioning from witnessing the power of God’s realm in bringing food, health, and wholeness to the powerless, to risking participation in such community in the face of the powerful.”
Malbon added more about the dangers in this undertaking. “Jesus’ obedience to God entails both proclaiming and enacting God’s realm in this present age and risking the inevitable suffering that such service to the powerless may elicit from the powerful, who are threatened by any challenge to the status quo.” 
What do we risk in order to challenge corruption in church and state? Do we really have to suffer unwanted torture like Ortiz or all the martyrs named and unnamed in the history of society and religion? The apostle Paul understood that the suffering he endured served as a way to be like Christ. The Catholic Catechism reiterates: “suffering … becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.” 
The passage about Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18) suggests that God will take care of those who follow the commandments; they will be blessed abundantly. These blessings are not so apparent today.
Many people globally are wondering where are the abundant blessings from God for those who faithfully have followed the commandments? Why have over 500,000 died from Covid related issues in the United States? Why are so many people out of work, hungry and even homeless? They ask, “Has God abandoned us?”
Further, Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to Iraq will remind us that Christians, Yazidis and others living in Baghdad, Mosul and the Nineveh Plains have been tortured and murdered just because of who they are. The history of slavery in this nation recalls the Black persons who were tortured and lynched because of their race. Anti-Semitism continues to plague Jews. Those helping immigrants along the Mexican border could be shot.
Sin and oppression will not go away. People will suffer and die because these are, undeniably, facets of human life. We live daily with suffering and death caused by failures, imperfections, diseases, loneliness, and accidents. Torture, killings, physical and psychological abuses, and other injustices happen because there are evil people living among us.
The challenge for the followers of Christ is to join people of other religious traditions to combat injustices. Kindness, empathy and sacrifice are key words. In every case showing gratitude for the blessings we do have is important. Sharing those blessings with others is our obligation. We cannot stand by and do nothing when bad things are happening to others.
1. In 2020 alone, nearly 500 femicides were reported in Guatemala, and at least 60 children were killed.
2. Women’s Bible Commentary, Newsome, Ringe, Lapsey, Editors, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2012) 480, 486.
3. Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1521
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First Sunday of Lent Year B
Lent is a good time for anyone affiliated with a Christian religion. Those who are prepping for Christian initiation at Easter will study, fast and pray. Those of us who are long time members will examine our consciences to recover what it means to be a Christian today.
Throughout the season there are some amazing and challenging biblical texts to keep us focused. Today’s gospel, for example, helps us think about the temptations in our lives.
In a biblical perspective the word “temptation” points to a trial that we might encounter. It requires making a free choice to be faithful to the Creator’s marvelous vision for the cosmos and its never ending evolution. Made in the image of God how do our actions help us develop and sustain a good relationship with God and creation? In other words, how can I cultivate “Godliness” in my life and for others?
On a daily basis we are faced with many decisions about life, time management, energy conservation, consumption of goods, caring for others, etc. We make some of these choices alone. Other issues are more societal where we join others to make the right decisions about issues that affect all of us: food inequity, the economy, health care, prison reform, human trafficking, immigration and the election of government officials.
And, let us not forget this is still Black History month. There are vital connections between acts of justice and our Lenten aspirations. Black History month honors the triumphs and struggles of African Americans throughout U.S. history, including the civil rights movement. It also celebrates Blacks’ artistic, cultural, political and athletic achievements. Black basketball players are now wearing uniforms that say “Built on Black History.”
Honoring Black lives does not eliminate the racial tensions caused by inequities and prejudice. Actor and playwright, Anna Deavere Smith, gave the apostle Paul’s teaching (1 Peter 3:18-22) about “appealing for a clear conscience” a keen perspective in her essay about Black identity and empowerment.
She wrote: “In our current moment of division, we cannot afford to go forward without looking back. We must excavate history to assess how we learned to restore human dignity that had been ripped away by plunder and slavery. How did we get this far? Not by being nice.”
“The journey of Lent,” Pope Francis said in his Ash Wednesday homily, “is an exodus from slavery to freedom.” We still have a long way to travel. Not everyone of us is being as nice as we should be toward those who are not like us.
Justice for all is an ambitious goal. Art critic Jason Farago offers this insight from the Enlightenment painter Francisco Goya.  “Goya saw, and depicted with unrivaled vision, that error or evil can never be purged entirely, not from your society, nor from your soul. A world of perfect justice will always be a mirage. Tyrants, idiots, swindlers, conspiracy theorists: They will always be with us.”
That unsettling commentary points to the momentous and imaginative story about Jesus in today’s gospel (Mark 1:12-15) who, while retreating in the desert, warded off the temptations of the devil. “Jesus invited everyone to metanoia, a conversion in which they would drop the myths that stifled their dreams and vision, freeing them to move in the future God desired for them.” 
Yielding to temptations is not helpful in this regard. In their collective history people of color offer us a model of strength, perseverance and bold action against all odds. It is a necessary foundation for pressing on, moving forward, in order to experience the peace and joy imagined by the God of all creation. 
Lent has traditionally been a season for purification, the intentional transformation of our lives. In its time, the idea of giving things up was a good one. Mostly it had to do with abstaining from whatever gave us delight in some way large or small. In reality, for many, it was an easy way to do penance.
Now, we are in a different place and period when we are challenged by the virus, home schooling, joblessness, economic constraints, and impatience. It is a good time to give up the temptation to ignore our bad habits. It is an opportune occasion to worry about those who are suffering more than we are and then to do something about it.
During Lent, like in any act of worship, we rehearse how to embrace the other, the stranger, to touch and nourish them with kindness. Lent is not an introspective occasion to improve only ourselves but also the lives of the people who are “other”, those yearning for justice. Forty days is not a long enough duration to completely correct our imperfections but it can provide a good start.
1. See “Goya: The Dreams, the Visions, the Nightmares” in The New York Times, February 11, 2021.
2. Mary McGlone, Commentary on the First Sunday of Lent, National Catholic Reporter, January 13, 2021.
3. See today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis (9:8-15) about God’s promise never to destroy us.
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Gotta Love Others Always
Sixth Sunday Ordinary Time Year B
Dare we mix Valentine’s Day with the upcoming season of Lent? Originally Valentine’s Day was a 3rd century pagan festival that took place in February, a word that is derived from the Latin word februa, meaning purification. The festival was Christianized in the 5th century and St. Valentine was added to the calendar.
According to legend, Valentine (there was also a Valentine of Terni) was beheaded because of his efforts to change an unjust law that decreed single men were better soldiers than married ones. To spite the law Valentine married couples in secret. One could say Valentine’s Day is a time for justice. Justice requires love.
Lent is usually considered a season of reconciliation and regeneration. It entails a certain amount of purification (februa) on our part. That cleansing is so important today. Societies everywhere are mired in hurtful injustices. We are part of those societies. The difference between right and wrong is muddled. Superstitions replace reason. How do we recover truth over fiction as a guidepost for living?
Although the length of the season of Lent varied in the beginning, it was a time of fasting and prayer leading up to Easter. Over time, it became a period of preparation for candidates for the sacraments of initiation. It was also a time of penance for grave sinners. Lent is a period of transformation.
The biblical texts today are familiar. Two of them remind us of the debilitating disease of leprosy. The obvious lesson is that we are called to embrace all people with love no matter what their condition, or race or ethnicity is. Think of all the health care workers treating sick and dying people in our hospitals regardless of age, ability, or comorbidity. They are models for the rest of us.
Jesus taught us to touch people who are outcasts living on the edge of society. To reach out to those who have no resources or hope is an important ministry for all of us. We are summoned to spread love where there is loathing, suspicion and harm. The second reading today is an early wake up call for the next forty days of Lent: “Avoid giving offense to the others who are not like you.”
With all the distractions in our lives these days it is easy to overlook what is taking place far away in the universe. Three rovers launched from different countries are approaching Mars. The names of the vehicles evoke a constructive message for us today as we deal with imperfections here on earth: The “Quest for Heavenly Truth” (Republic of China), “Hope” (UAE), and “Perseverance” (USA).
Three nation states are working in a united effort to explore and learn more about a planet about 35 million miles away. Here on this tiny planet the names of the rovers could serve as guideposts for our journeys forward. God’s realm is already here just not yet realized. There is work for us to do.
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SEARCHING FOR BEAUTY AND GRACE
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
While being interviewed on the NPR program “On Being,” Mary Catherine Bateson, talked about “believing in the God of all things as they are.” She said, “Job lost a sense of wonder.” She continued … God invites us to just look around to experience the wonder of creation which then leads to praise.
This is something Job, in the first reading today, failed to do. He was so caught up in his own ambitions, possessions, and worries he failed to notice all the goodness around him.
Job's shaky encounter with God turned into a loving one once he figured out what he thought was his really did not belong to him even though he worked hard to get them. The never ending beauty of creation and all it encompasses is entrusted to us to protect and share for as long as we live on this fragile planet.
The woman in the gospel, Penthera, Peter’s mother-in-law, was hanging on for dear life. Whatever she may have yearned for or acquired in life no longer mattered. When she was healed by Jesus her experience of in exhaustible goodness transformed her. She then became Jesus’s disciple.
Do we expect God to relate to us the way we want God to treat us? Do we ask too much of the world we live in … sometimes only for our own benefit? Maybe a quiet patience beckons us to let beauty and grace come to us rather than chasing after them with our prayers and good deeds. What will it take for me to be open to whatever a holy Spirit will bring into my life? Then, will I share that blessing with others?
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BY WHOSE AUTHORITY?
4th Sunday Ordinary Time B
In today’s gospel (Mark 1:21-28) we read that Jesus had “authority” over unclean spirits and his fame spread everywhere in the region. Jesus’s authority did not come from any government official or written document. His authority emanated from his charismatic being, his Spirit, and he released it for the common good. People believed him because he spoke to their needs.
There are a lot of people who exercise “authority” throughout the world these days. Who or what gives them that power? In the government of the United States powers and authorities exercised by elected officials are outlined in the Constitution and its amendments. While those rights of individuals are stated in that document not all citizens have been or are treated in the same way because of the “hard hearted” divisions in this country.
On the local level there are various authorities at work to protect and represent all people and to see that everyone has a fair chance to advance in society with dignity and equity regardless of race, religion, gender or ethnicity. However, these aspirations, also rooted in the Constitution, are hard to realize. Consider, for one example, the growing gap between wealthy and poor people.
In the Catholic Church, the pope is considered the supreme authority. His ecclesial ministry is most notable in matters of faith and morals. In principle this authority is shared by bishops and the laity.  The role of the Holy Spirit acting in the entire body of the church is extremely important but often difficult to accept because the hierarchy continues to ignore the insights and contributions of so many people.
The polarization that exists in civic societies is not new in religious ones. It is clear that Pope Francis does not have the support or obedience in his own household. There are clergy and laity who question the pope’s teaching authority and power to lead. Because of these divisions people yearn for truthful and authentic voices. Organized religions are expected to provide moral leadership.
What kind of authority did Jesus have? Where did that power come from? In general, there are at least two forms of power and authority according to James Rowe Adams.  First is the power that enforces obedience. This kind of authority uses coercive means to rule over the people who have no voice. The second type is the power to influence or inspire. This is a more collaborative authority that seeks out the wisdom of the group.
A close reading of the Second (New) Testament clearly suggests that, in the beginning, the followers of Jesus used their teaching authority to influence and inspire others. These early disciples believed that the kingdom of God was at hand. Jesus’s power over the unclean spirit reported in today’s gospel metaphorically signaled an end to the oppressive regimes that ruled the world. Jesus announced a new day was coming. And, he backed up his words with action.
In the words of Dennis Hamm: “To say that the ‘kingdom of God’ is at hand is to draw upon the apocalyptic world view and to say that God is about to manifest divine kingship by rescuing God's people from whatever oppresses them ….”
Hamm continued: “When we find ourselves depressed and oppressed by the evil we detect in others, perhaps we best hear the authoritative teaching of Jesus when we hear it as a call to our own further conversion.”
In his sermon at the inaugural prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral the Rev. William J. Barber II  likened the invasion of the Capitol to the many breaches that exist in our country. He said, “According to the imagery of Isaiah … a breach occurs when there is a gap in the nation between what is and how God wants things to be.” Barber added that unity without action will get us nowhere.
Seekers of unity, reconciliation, and peace? Repairers of the breaches? What action is required to achieve such ambitious agendas? With the witness of Jesus in mind what is holding us back from releasing the Spirit inside us?
Starting with our personal lives we can clean out the demons, the evil forces that consume us and mislead us. In doing so we can regain our true identity as a Spirit-filled people with a purpose. We are not to be led by suspect powers that take advantage of us. We do not want a new normal that is merely the old normal in disguise.
Instead we want to take control of our destinies to find ways to emerge with new energy, new composure, new agendas, to shape the world we live in. In doing so our collegial authority and power, rooted in a divine presence in and among us, will influence and inspire others just like Jesus of Nazareth did.
1. See The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 874-913.
2. Adams was the rector of St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill for 50 years before his retirement. He also founded The Center for Progressive Christianity.
3. Barber is President and Senior Lecturer at Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.