Creeping Up to Lent?

Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time

February 25, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, we are creeping up to Lent’s doorstep.

Doorstep

Are you beginning to consider your Lenten rituals? Our readings today might help orient us.

They leave this question hanging in the air: Who do I really want to be in my life?

Mk9_34 first last

James says that if we are someone who loves the world, we will find ourselves at enmity with God. James defines “the world” as a place in discord, conflicted by covetousness, envy, frustration, and death-dealing.

James is directly addressing damaging squabbles within the Church itself. Infighting has caused fractures within his believing community. Failures in mutual charity and sincere prayer have generated “wars” among the members.

Why would anybody choose to contribute to such a negative environment? 

James pins it on one thing: jealousy. We are jealous to be, have, control, and possess more than others. We are tempted by power, riches and esteem. We want our opinions to be honored, our needs to be met above and before others.


The reality exists today as well, as we know too well.

  • We see it in the Church from factions who want to bend the Gospel to their own agenda.
  • We see it within and between nations who raise the advantage of some over the welfare of others.
  • We see it in families, businesses, and social circles where individuals volley for position, influence, or control over others.

These conflicts pour out in criticism, judgements, biases, shunning, and all kinds of failures in compassion, respect, and honesty. They blind us to our common creaturehood in God, and to its demand for an equity of love, mercy, and justice.

Otherwise, 

  • How could we ever kill or enslave one another, either by aggression or neglect?
  • How could we separate parents from their children and put babies in cages?
  • How could we participate in a global economic tyranny that leaves some without land, homes, health care, or hope?
  • How could we use other human beings – or their vital resources – only for our own pleasure, power or enrichment?

Most of us do not outrightly choose these sinful behaviors. But we must ask ourselves to what degree we are complicit in them by our failures in just judgement, advocacy, political responsibility, globally sustainable choices, — just plain care and reverence for all human beings, all Creation.


The approach of Lent is a great time to revisit the question James hangs in the air for us:

  • Who do I really want to be in my life? 
  • Do I need to make changes to do that? 
  • How can I prepare for a Lent that helps me make those Grace-filled changes?

We are grown-ups now, and our Lenten repentances demand more than those we learned in grade school. Fasting from candy won’t cut it anymore. 

  • How about we fast from cable news that feeds our biases?
  • Or actually do something for our parish besides critique the Sunday sermon?
  • Maybe give up some of our polluting behaviors requiring plastic and other non-recyclables?
  • How about including a outsider in something where they are otherwise ignored?
  • Or providing for someone’s need who would hesitate to ask for your attention?

I think James would approve of choices like that because he says:

God bestows a greater grace; therefore, it says:
God resists the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.
So submit yourselves to God.

Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you.
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

Music: When It’s All Been Said and Done – Robin Mark

Help My Unbelief!

Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

February 24, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, the deep undercurrent of our readings is about the power and difficulties of faith.

James talks about how our faith can be choked by the weeds of “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition”. These chokers make us “boast and be false to the truth”. They fill us with a “pretend wisdom” that is not from the Holy Spirit.

Praying with this passage, I asked myself why we allow these ugly constraints to grasp our souls when the alternative James describes is so beautiful:

… the wisdom from above is first of all pure,
then peaceable, gentle, compliant,
full of mercy and good fruits,
without inconstancy or insincerity.
And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace
for those who cultivate peace.


The Gospel helped me with an answer.

Unconditional faith is scary. It requires us to give control over to God. It asks us to let go of fear and to trust God’s Spirit within us. It needs us to empty our hearts of pretense and self-protection in order to make room for God’s transforming Mercy and Love.

This kind of faith will change us. It will make us “foolish” and insecure in worldly terms. It will cause us to live from a Wisdom the world misunderstands and mocks.

It’s hard to live that kind of faith. The dad in today’s Gospel admits it. He wants to have a faith that invites Christ’s power into his life. But he’s afraid. What if God wants something different for him and his son? What happens if he gives control over to God?

This yearning father confesses his ambivalence in a plea for Christ’s assistance:

Mk9_24 unbelief

We all find ourselves within that plea sometimes in our lives. It’s a faith of “if”, “maybe”, and “but” – all of which are hardly faith at all. Unconditional faith is “Yes”, no matter what. It is the place where Faith and Love merge.

Our faithful “Yes”, as the e.e.cummings poem might describe it:

love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds



Music:
  When we live this “Yes Faith”, God’s love, God’s heart lives in us. This song by Michael Hedges, based on another poem by e.e.cummings, can be a prayer for us. We may be unused to calling God “my dear”, “my darling”. But a loving name for God can be helpful to our prayer. Substitute what works for you. Don’t be hesitant about being in love with God❤️

I Carry Your Heart – Michael Hedges (Lyrics below)

I carry your heart with me
I carry it in my heart
I am never without it
Anywhere i go you go, my dear
And whatever is done by only me
Is your doing, my darling.

I fear no fate
For you are my fate, my sweet
I want no world
For beautiful you are my world, my true
And it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
And whatever a sun will always sing is you

Here is the deepest secret nobody knows
Here is the root of the root
And the bud of the bud
And the sky of the sky
Of a tree called life;
Which grows higher than the soul can hope
Or mind can hide
And this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
I carry your heart
I carry it in my heart

Simple Not Easy

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

February 23, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, our readings focus us on how to live a good,honest, holy life.

Leviticus makes it simple:

Lv19_18 neighbor

But “simple” does not mean easy. Jesus makes that clear in the Gospel. He tells us that we may thinks it’s enough to love our neighbor by:

  • an “eye for an eye” justice
  • accepting that one slap on the cheek
  • giving over some of our possessions
  • serving them for the time they ask

But Jesus says, “No. Not enough!” We must go all in for love:

  • take no “eye”, no legal repayment 
  • turn the other cheek
  • give both shirt AND jacket off your back
  • work twice as long and hard as demanded

kidding


Guess what? He’s not kidding. He goes on to double down on his words:

  • Don’t just love your neighbor as yourself, as Leviticus requires. Love your enemy that way too.
  • Do it because your Creator loves you, and all of us, that way — with Lavish Mercy.
  • Be that Mercy in the world.

Paul gives us an added incentive for living this challenge. He acknowledges that to live in Christian love and mercy seems foolish in the eyes of the world … BUT:

Let no one deceive himself.
If any one among you considers himself wise in this age,
let him become a fool, so as to become wise.
For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God,
for it is written:
God catches the wise in their own ruses,
and again:

The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
that they are vain.


As I said at the outset, it’s simple, but it’s not easy. So much in our culture promotes the opposite approach to life – me first, exclude others, win at all costs, money matters over everything, use people and things then discard them, and on and on…..

Using our beautiful Responsorial Psalm, let us pray for the insight to see through to God’s Truth and Love, and for the courage to live them. 

Music: The Lord Is Kind and Merciful – Jean Cotter 

Refrain
The Lord is kind and merciful;
The Lord is kind and merciful.
Slow to anger, rich in kindness,
The Lord is kind and merciful.

Bless the Lord, O my soul;
All my being bless God’s name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul;
Forget not all God’s blessings.

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger, full of kindness.
God is good to all creation,
Full of compassion.

The goodness of God is from age to age,
Blessing those who choose to love.
And justice toward God’s children;
On all who keep the covenant.

Who Are You?

Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, Apostle
February 22, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, our reading is about God naming us.

Rembrandt_The_Apostle_Peter
The Apostle Peter – Rembrandt

We celebrate wonderful Saint Peter – so fully human, so fully holy, so fully in love with God! Today, as we pray with Peter’s naming, may we deepen in understanding our own naming by God.


I wrote about Peter like this on another of his feasts:

When Jesus asks Peter what he believes, Peter says,
“YOU ARE THE CHRIST, THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD.”
An ordinary man responding with a clear and extraordinary faith.

Caesarea

 

One June morning, about forty years ago, I sat in a sun-filled field in the Golan Heights of Israel at a spot called Caesarea Philippi. Thirty other pilgrims composed the group as we heard today’s Gospel being read. Listening, I watched the rising sun grow brilliant on the majestic rock face in the near distance.

I thought how Peter might have watched his day’s sun playing against the same powerful cliffs as Jesus spoke his name:

Jesus said to him,
You are Peter (which means “Rock”),

and upon this Rock
I will build my Church.


dome
A few years later, I stood at the center of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Looking up, I saw these words emblazoned around the awesome rotunda dome:

 

 


Tu es Petrus,
et super hanc petram
aedificabo ecclesiam.


On that lazy afternoon two-thousand years ago, Peter could never have imagined what God already saw for him. Yet, Peter responded – with his whole life. This is what makes a Saint.


Jesus calls us to be saints too. He lovingly speaks our name into a sacred future we cannot even imagine. But if, like Peter, we trust and believe, God does the rest.

Below the music is a powerful poem by John Poch. It captures the transformation of Peter’s humanness into God’s hope for him.



There are three things which are too wonderful for me,
Yes, four which I do not understand.
The way of an eagle in the air,
The way of a serpent on a rock,
The way of a ship in the heart of the sea,
And the way of a man with a maid
 –Prov. 30:18, 19

I
Contagious as a yawn, denial poured
over me like a soft fall fog, a girl
on a carnation strewn parade float, waving
at everyone and no one, boring and bored.
There actually was a robed commotion parading.
I turned and turned away and turned. A swirl
of wind pulled back my hood, a fire of coal
brightened my face, and those around me whispered:
You’re one of them, aren’t you? You smell like fish.
And wine, someone else joked. That’s brutal. That’s cold,
I said, and then they knew me by my speech.
They let me stay and we told jokes like fisher-
men and houseboys. We gossiped till the cock crowed,
his head a small volcano raised to mock stone.

II
Who could believe a woman’s word, perfumed
in death? I did. I ran and was outrun
before I reached the empty tomb. I stepped
inside an empty shining shell of a room,
sans pearl. I walked back home alone and wept
again. At dinner. His face shone like the sun.
I went out into the night. I was a sailor
and my father’s nets were calling. It was high tide,
I brought the others. Nothing, the emptiness
of business, the hypnotic waves of failure.
But a voice from shore, a familiar fire, and the nets
were full. I wouldn’t be outswum, denied
this time. The coal-fire before me, the netted fish
behind. I’m carried where I will not wish.

What Profit?

Friday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

February 21, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, James actually made me chuckle out loud! In today’s celebrated passage about faith and works, James – ever direct and uncompromising – really takes it home. Get this verse:

Do you want proof, you ignoramus,
that faith without works is useless?

OK, James! Tell us what you really think!😂

Well, here’s what he really thinks:

For just as a body without a spirit is dead,
so also faith without works is dead.


 

whole world

In our Gospel, Jesus says that living a life of good works is hard. He did it through the Cross and says we must follow his example:

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the Gospel will save it.

The Gospel Jesus is talking about, and the “works” James refers to,  are summarized like this:



Corporal Works of Mercy

feed the hungry.
give water to the thirsty.
clothe the naked.
shelter the homeless.
visit the sick.
visit the imprisoned, ransom the captive.
bury the dead.

Spiritual Works of Mercy

instruct the ignorant.
counsel the doubtful.
admonish the sinners.
bear patiently those who wrong us.
forgive offenses.
comfort the afflicted.
pray for the living and the dead.


If we live by these, we will find the Cross – but we will also find the Crown.

Music: Lose My Soul – TobyMac, a multi-award winning Christian hip-hop singer. The music is a departure for me, but I thought the song was really good (maybe of use to some of my readers who are teachers.) I hope you agree.

Be Impartial, or Not?

Thursday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

February 20, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, two Apostles of Jesus are our teachers. James advises us on what to do. Beloved Peter, as so often is the case, shows us what not to do.

James tells us to show no partiality. He makes clear that he is talking about impartiality toward those who are materially poor. It’s a maxim that Jesus gave us time and again in the Gospel.

James2_1 partiality

James reminds us that Jesus is not just impartial toward the poor, he actually has a preferential love for them. So Jesus was partial to the poor, right? Hmm!

Yes, I think that’s right. In order to balance our human inclination to the richest, best, strongest, etc., Jesus teaches us to go all out in the other direction.

It’s like this great cartoon that’s popped up on Facebook recently:

equity


Our Gospel picks up the theme.

Because of his great love for the poor and his passion for mercy, Jesus tells his followers that suffering is coming. Peter doesn’t like hearing that. Can you see Peter take Jesus aside and say, “Listen, Jesus, negative talk is going to hurt you campaign. You’re God! You can just zap suffering out of your life!


behind me satan

Jesus responds to Peter definitively: “Get thee behind me, Satan!

Wow! That must have stung! But that’s how important it was to Jesus that his followers understood his mission: to preach Mercy to the poor, sick, and broken by sharing and transforming their experience.

Jesus wants us to understand that too.

 


Music: Beauty for Brokenness – Graham Kendrick

Like Trees Walking

Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

February 19, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, our readings are around the theme of our spiritual senses.

James1_22 doers

James tells us to listen, look, see, and act on the Word planted within our hearts. Once again, he gives us great images to help our understanding.

mirror

For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer,
he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror.
He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets
what he looked like.

 


 

horse

 

If anyone thinks he is religious
and does not bridle his tongue

but deceives his heart, his religion is vain.

 

 


 

In our Gospel, once again our dear, earthy Jesus heals someone in a deeply human way. Jesus takes the blind man aside, holding his hand to lead him. As he did in a passage recently, Jesus spits on his fingers and massages the blind man’s eyes.

blind man

The man tries to work with Jesus, exclaiming that he sees “people like trees walking”. 

I’ve always loved that line because it makes me feel like I’m right there, listening to the man’s amazement!

As we pray this morning, we might wonder what Jesus said back to that overwhelmed man as they sat together. What might he say to us as he lifts one of our many blindnesses from our hearts?

Music:  I See Men As Trees Walking – Johnny Cash (lyrics below)

No Shadow of Turning

Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

February 18, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, James continues with his spiritual encouragements. 

For one thing, he makes it clear that God doesn’t tempt us. Some of us make the mistake of thinking that, saying things like, “God is testing me.”

James, outlining a perfect way to examine one’s conscience, says this:

No one experiencing temptation should say,
“I am being tempted by God”;
for God is not subject to temptation to evil,
and God himself tempts no one.
Rather, each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his own desire.
Then desire conceives and brings forth sin,
and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.


 

I don’t really like to talk about sins; I’d probably much rather commit them!!!! So if we have some little labyrinths of temptation and sinful habits ensnaring us, we should listen to James. He encourages us to examine and check our own concupiscent  desires as they are the seeds of our spiritual undoing. 

In my experience, these desires are usually disguised, pretending to be beneficial for us at first sight. But underneath, they are rooted in selfishness and excess, deviating us from our center in God. Just think how some of the famous ones have masqueraded into our lives: Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth, Lust, Greed, Wrath (Vengeful Anger).


In the second part of this passage, James takes the tone up a notch. He reminds us that, once centered on God, we realize that only good things come from God.

All good giving and every perfect gift is from above,
coming down from the Father of lights,
with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.

I particularly love that last phrase, rendered in our hymn today like this:
James1_17 no shadow

It’s beautiful to see how James, as a real spiritual leader, is so aware of his flock’s human struggles. No doubt, he shares them. What a blessing that his wise and loving guidance has come down through the ages to us!

Music: Great Is Thy Faithfulness- Chris Rice

Count It All Joy!

Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

February 17, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, in this week and a half before Ash Wednesday, we begin the Epistle of James.

800px-Epistle_of_James_Chapter_1-2_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)
The Epistle of James- Chapter 1: Illustration provided to Wikimedia Commons by Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing as part of a cooperation project. Sweet Publishing released these images, which are taken from now-out-of-print Read’n Grow Picture Bible Illustrations (Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984.), under new license, CC-BY-SA 3.0

This letter is one of the very earliest of the New Testament. Scholars are mixed about exactly which “James” wrote it, but agree that it was one of several who were very close to Jesus – perhaps one of “the brothers of Jesus” mentioned in several New Testament passages:

  • Matthew 12:46-50
  • Mark 3:31
  • Luke 8:19
  • John 2:12
  • Acts 1:14
  • 1 Corinthians 9:5
  • and specifically “the Lord’s brother James” in Galatians 1:19

James writes in the style of Wisdom Literature, those Old Testament books that give advice, proverbs, and insights for living a holy life. His immediate audience was a community of dispersed Christian Jews whose world was filled with increasing upheaval and persecution.

When I read the following description I thought how germane James’s letter could be for our world today. His themes echo the teachings of Pope Francis for our chaotic time:


The epistle is renowned for exhortions on fighting poverty and caring for the poor in practical ways (1:26–27; 2:1-4; 2:14-19; 5:1-6), standing up for the oppressed (2:1-4; 5:1-6) and not being “like the world” in the way one responds to evil in the world (1:26-27; 2:11; 3:13-18; 4:1-10). Worldly wisdom is rejected and people are exhorted to embrace heavenly wisdom, which includes peacemaking and pursuing righteousness and justice (3:13-18).
(Jim Reiher, “Violent Language – a clue to the Historical Occasion of James.”Evangelical Quarterly. Vol. LXXXV No. 3. July 2013)


  • Be joyful in trials. (Wait! What!)
  • Let trials increase your perseverance not discourage you.
  • Doing this is a sign of wisdom.
  • When your wisdom is depleted, ask God for more with an open and trusting heart.
  • Honor all people, high or low in circumstances
  • Don’t be fooled by riches. They fade away.

In our Gospel, Jesus is frustrated with the Pharisees who insincerely demand a magical sign from him. They demonstrate none of the spiritual wisdom and openness to grace that James describes.

scale

When we think about our own faith, where does it fall on the scale of sincerity, on the spectrum of counter-culturalism?

Music: Count It All Joy – Scripture Memory Songs

Deep Law of the Heart

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

February 16, 2020

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Ps119 Law


Today, in Mercy, our readings are all about LAW.

It’s a word we hear a lot about today, isn’t it? 

  • Rule of Law. 
  • Breaking the Law. 
  • Immigration Law.
  • Mother-in-Law.

You name it, LAW is all around us. So we should already know all about what today’s scripture passages describe – right?

Not really. 

230-2303502_law-clipart-law-and-order-clip-art.png


The “law” we are accustomed to discussing is about agreements constructed by human beings – some of those “agreements” better than others. They are interpreted, stretched, amended, honored, ignored, bypassed, and dissolved by human beings as well.

Sometimes, we equate these “laws” with justice which, at their best, we hope they are. But the LAW of today’s readings is above and beyond these humanly defined agreements. 


This LAW emanates from God. It is pure, whole, complete and holy. It is derived from the perfect nature of God which is, at once, both justice and mercy.

Sirach invites us to thrive in the perfection of God’s Law:

If you choose you can keep the commandments,
they will save you;

if you trust in God, you too shall live.

Paul tells the Corinthians that those “mature” in grace are able to receive the mystery of this Divine Law.

We speak a wisdom to those who are mature,
not a wisdom of this age,
nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.

It is a “mysterious and hidden” Wisdom which the rulers/law makers of Paul’s age did not understand. Because when the Perfect Law became flesh in Jesus Christ, they could not comprehend him.


In our Gospel, Jesus is very clear. He is the fulfillment, not the abolishment of the Law. To live truly within that fulfillment, his disciples must go the extra mile – that is, they must infuse their practice of law/justice with the essence of Love and Mercy.


soup

In the five years since I retired, I’ve gotten pretty good at making soup. When I’m a little lazy, I use a commercial stock for my broth. But when I want to make a soup extra special – truly my own – I make my own bone broth. It makes all the difference.

 


I think growing in our understanding of God’s Law is a little bit like that. It is the “perfect broth” that requires us to put our whole hearts into it. When we consume it, we are nourished, sustained, changed.

Paul says that we can’t even imagine the “broth” God has prepared for us when we live, delight, and become transformed in God’s Law:

Eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him,

Music:  Eye HAs Not Seen – Marty Haugen