ISAIAH 55:10-11. ROMANS 8:18-23 MATTHEW 13:1-17
The gospel passage presented for our reflection today is long and, frankly, confusing in several ways. At one and the same time Jesus is giving one message to the disciples and another to the crowd. In addition, an interpretation of the parable is tacked on to the passage. It isn’t Jesus’ interpretation. It may be Matthew’s or a later editor. Here’s the outline of the entire passage.
1. Jesus sat in a boat while a crowd gathered along the shore to listen to him. He spun a parable for them – the parable of the sower.
2. Afterwards, the disciples asked him why he taught with parables. He answered them by quoting a passage from the prophet Isaiah.
3. Jesus then commended the disciples for being able to understand his teaching.
4. The last part of the passage is an editor’s interpretation of the parable.
I’m going to focus on parts one, two and three. I won’t address part four. You can read it on your own. It’s a perfectly fine interpretation. Traditionally, a rabbi never interpreted his parables. He simply told the story and left it for his disciples to ponder and interpret personally. This interpretation is perhaps Matthew’s , but more likely, someone who later edited Matthew’s gospel. Let’s move on and re-read the parable.
A crowd was following Jesus. He led them to the shore of the lake and got into a small boat that was moored just a few feet off shore. He sat down, taking the position that a rabbi would take as his disciples sat around him on the ground. When everyone sat down he told them a parable.
He used an image that everyone could relate to, a farmer planting seeds. There were two methods of sowing seeds in his day. A farmer would strap a bag of seeds over his shoulder, fill his hand with seeds and cast them over the ground as he walked along the paths between the furrows. Or the farmer would strap the bag of seeds onto the hind end of a donkey and make holes on either side of the bag. As he led the animal along the path the seeds would spill out into the furrows that were on either side of the narrow walkway.
The parable describes what might happen to the seeds. “Some seed fell on the path and birds came and ate it up.” Fields always had paths that ran through them. The sower, and anyone wanting to cross the field, would walk along these paths. They were hard from the traffic. The seed that fell onto these paths had no chance of taking root because the ground was too hard, and so they were destined to become lunch for the birds.
“Some fell on rocky ground where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots.” Much of the ground in Palestine consisted of shallow earth over a shelf of limestone. This was what Jesus meant by “rocky ground.” The seeds would spring up quickly, but because of the shallow earth, but they wouldn’t develop the necessary root system to catch any moister. They’d spring up but wither away quickly in the arid climate.
“Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.” Here Jesus is referring to weeds. Anyone who has ever tended a garden knows the stubborn strength of weeds. They seem indestructible and will choke to death everything around them.
“But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” Finally – some seed made it! That’s the parable. I’m going to move on to the rest of the passage now. I’ll backtrack after we’ve looked at part two and three of the passage.
A simple question asked by the disciples generated a profound answer from Jesus. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Don’t interpret Jesus’ answer in a harsh way, though it may seem harsh. He quoted a very frustrated prophet Isaiah. “You shall hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see. Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, and I heal them.”
It’s not difficult to apply the imagery of the parable to Isaiah’s statement. Ears are meant to hear a message. Eyes are meant to see what lies ahead. Sadly, so many don’t hear God’s personal invitation. Many don’t see the pathway God laid out for them. Many miss the opportunity to be healed by God – to receive a new heart from God – a new life.
Jesus ended this simple teaching moment with Fourth of July fireworks the big booming, weeping willow-like fireworks. He spoke directly to the hearts of his disciples. He confided a secret to them. Many aren’t ready yet to hear what I have to say. Many aren’t ready for healing and transformation. “But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears because you hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
The parable of the sower was meant for the people who couldn’t see or hear. It was telling then that if they convert, turn the direction of their lives toward God, they would reap a wonderful harvest: “a hundred, sixty or thirty-fold.” Jesus was teaching his disciples that they who have hear what he taught, and understood his actions, have actually peered into the heart of God In Jesus they have seen and experienced God’s love. From now on, they’re the seed that was planted in fertile soil. He guarantees them a magnificent harvest – a new life flowing from the heart of God. This is the beginning of the kingdom of God on earth.
ZECHARIAH 9:9-10. ROMANS 8:9-11 MATTHEW 11:25-30
In this Sunday’s Gospel we read one of Jesus most popular sayings.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give your rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” It’s a loving invitation on one level, and a challenge on another. Let’s take a good look at this beloved saying because its message is so important.
To properly understand the depth of his invitation, we need to take his statement very personally. Jesus is reaching out with profound compassion and empathy to anyone who might listen to him. He sees our inner restlessness and our deeply felt unhappiness. He offers us healing. But we need to prepare ourselves in order to hear his message and accept the healing by questioning ourselves at the deepest level. How might I describe my unhappiness? What’s that inner restlessness that’s continually churning within me blocking my peace of heart, my inner peace?
Let’s turn to today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans to assist us in our inner reflection. He writes, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Be careful here, however. This passage has been misinterpreted often.
Many ascetics throughout the history of Christianity have taken this to mean that anything that has to do with bodily pleasure couldn’t possibly come from God but could come only from the evil one. As a result, a cult of mortification, penance, self- flagellation, and the condemnation of human sexuality have stubbornly persisted in Christianity and has enthroned an image of a wrathful god in Christian spirituality. We want to avoid this type of thinking as we ponder St. Paul’s teaching.
The best definition for “flesh” that I’ve come across is this: “Flesh recoils from anything that might cause us to be anything less than the center of the universe.” This is what St. John refers to as “the world” in his Gospel. It’s whatever distracts us from the love of God. Self-centeredness is, perhaps, the clearest definition of “flesh” or “the world.”
St. Paul is teaching that “flesh,” our stubborn self-centeredness, doesn’t reward us with a deeper experience of life. Rather, it detaches us from the love of others, and leads to the destruction of our sacred and God-given humanity. He calls that death.
The challenge St. Paul places before us is to live a Spirit-filled life that puts “to death the deeds of the body,” self-centeredness. A Spirit-filled life frees us to reach out, to love. This is life to its fullest. Jesus is offering the same challenge in his teaching. It’s part of his invitation, “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
When we recognize that deep inside we feel weighted down, burdened, unsettled, not truly content – incomplete, we have to assess our basic motivation, our modus operandi. Am I expending all my energy on trying to be happy? Has securing power and fame not been successful in helping me feel whole and complete? Has financial security not made me happy? Has sculpting the perfect body for myself not made me feel any better about myself? Have my family, friendships and relationships never really brought me contentment of heart. Do I ever wonder why I’m here on planet earth?
Jesus is inviting us to live differently. He’s promising us “rest” from these inner burdens that weigh down our souls. His promise isn’t a free gift though. We have to work for it. We have to challenge our thoughts and actions and begin to live differently. “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.” We have to study Jesus. We have to look at his life and listen attentively to his teaching. He tells us so clearly, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it!” We have to come to the realization that self-centeredness is our original sin. It isolates us from God, the people around us and ourselves. It bars us from paradise.
Jesus could not have been any clearer in directing us to a new way of living than when he gave us the new commandment. “Love one another as I have loved you.” This isn’t romantic, feel-good love. This is sacrificial love the opposite of self-centeredness. His commandment goes on to clarify what he means by love. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
I believe we’re living in a very special, Spirit-filled time. The powerful illusions we’ve worshipped, wealth, security, prestige, health – all have been challenged by a virus – one hundred twenty-eight thousand deaths and forty million unemployed in the United States. But the Spirit has liberated his gifts throughout this time. The Spirit has been guiding us through the darkness with the light of love. Many of us are putting our lives on the line by caring for one another. Our health-care professionals and essential workers have been willing to lay down their lives for the greater good.
That virus has uncovered terrible inequalities and injustice in our society and our culture. The voice of prophecy is being heard, once again. We’re being challenged to judge our way of thinking about each other. We’re being challenged to rebuild our society. We’re being challenged to care for one another. We’re being challenged to lay down our lives for one another. We’re being challenged to love. May the day come soon when we all hear the voice of Jesus saying to us, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16b Romans 6:3-4, 8-11 Matthew 10:37-42
June 28, 2020
Today’s gospel passage from the tenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel is directed to us, the disciples of Jesus. In fact, all of chapter ten is a kind of handbook for disciples. I want to outline, very briefly, the entire chapter because everything in it is too good to pass over.
“He summoned his twelve disciples (apostles) and gave them authority over unclean spirits to drive them out and to cure every disease and illness.” What a job description! They’re to do exactly what Jesus has been doing!
Matthew then names the apostles – a motley crew in many ways: a few fishermen, two sets of brothers, a tax collector who most people hated and considered a traitor to Israel because he collected taxes for Rome. Also named is Simon, a member of the Zealot Party, a militant political organization that often rebelled against the Roman occupation, and even engaged in political assassinations. Matthew, a tax collector for Rome, would easily have been one of their targets. Finally, he names the one who would eventually betray him to the authorities. By listing the twelve Matthew is telling us that anyone and everyone can be called to be a disciple. We shouldn’t be shocked by God’s choice. All a person needs to do is to say yes to the call. But…..
But Jesus goes on to tell us of the difficulties anyone who accepts his call will face. “I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves…They will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans.” In other words, we’ll be rejected by both the church (synagogue) and the state. He continues by blessing and consoling us with the most tender and encouraging words. “Do not be afraid of them. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be made known. What I say to you in the darkness speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.”
What Jesus has spoken in our ears and whispered to our hearts is a message that will not be accepted by everyone. Jesus is warning us not to be surprised or discouraged should people act violently against us. His message of love will divide the dark from the light, good from evil. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.”
This brings us to the conclusion of chapter ten, and to the passage that we’re focusing on today. What a challenge it is! He presents a harsh image of the cost of discipleship. There will be those who hear and respond to his call for unconditional love, and there will be those who do not hear and so will not respond. This will separate people from one another, even friends and families.
For some disciples this may mean suffering and even death. “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” This was a shocking statement. Anyone who heard this teaching would have immediately thought of the rebellion of Judas the Galilean. In the year 6 AD Judas urged the people not to respond to the census that was being taken, the census under way during the time of Jesus’ birth. Not responding to the census meant that people would not pay the Roman tax. Those who dared register had their houses burned by the Zealots. The Roman general Varus was called in to crush the revolt. He crucified two thousand Jews, mounting their crosses along the roads leading to Galilee.
Matthew concludes the chapter by naming the spiritual dynamic that accompanies the disciple – you and me. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple – amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.”
Jesus is telling us that by our saying “yes” to his call to be his disciples we’ve given permission for him to continue his work through us. Like him, we’ll be prophets; we’ll be models of justice and righteousness. So much so, that an act of kindness done to any of us, will be an act of kindness to him.
I’ve tried, in this reflection on chapter ten of Matthew’s gospel, to shed some light on this simple handbook for disciples. I hope it will make it easier for you to make your own, uniquely personal, reflection in light of this unique time in our world’s history.
Each and every one of us is living through a powerful, global, and I believe, Spirit-filled time. The Spirit that released the divine fire on the day of Pentecost has released that same fire of courage, transformation and purification into our world. A pandemic, global protests and crashing economies seem to be the vocabulary the Spirit is using to call forth the reign of justice and equality, the reign of the kingdom of God.
The pandemic has given us an opportunity to lay down our lives for each other in many ways, whether as front-line medical workers, people running mass transit, cashiers or parents isolated at home with the families. It has forced us to give up our social lives for a while – to stop us in our tracks – to slow us down – to free us from the slavery to endless activity and distraction.
The Spirit is using this time to give us an opportunity to heal our souls, personal and communal. Racism, injustice and systemic inequality in our societies is revealing itself. The Spirit is urging a response.
The Spirit has shown us that our economies are fragile; a microscopic virus is powerful enough to shut them down. The Spirit is giving us a chance to transform them into social systems that benefit everyone.
With all this is mind, please read chapter ten of Matthew’s gospel. Read it very personally. It’s the handbook for disciples. It’s your guide through this difficult and trying time, this time of purification and transformation. The Spirit is calling each of us to respond with unconditional love. What role is the Spirit offering you?
Jeremiah 20:10-13. Romans 5:12-15 Matthew 10:26-33
In the Gospel passage today, Jesus was speaking very personally, and very seriously to the apostles. He warned them that, for apostles to take up the mission, they must be strong and courageous. He emphasized this by commanding three times: “Do not be afraid!” This same message is meant for us – today; and what an appropriate message it is.
Our world is in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Here in New York, everyone knows someone who has had the virus, and many of us know individuals who have not survived the virus. New York, the financial capital of the nation is slowly and painfully falling to its knees. 40% of the residents of Manhattan have fled the city. The city of restaurants and theaters has shuttered their doors and shut off their lights. We’re nervously anticipating the real estate market to crash. Millions of us are unemployed. The deep inequalities choking the ideals our republic are painfully evident. We’re in crisis. No one knows what the world, our nation or our city will look like in a year or two. When the virus is gone, when the protests cease, what will be left who will we be? We’re all fearful because we can’t answer that question.
We have to remember that Jesus’ command, “Do not be afraid,” is backed up by his promise of the Spirit. It’s imperative that we rely on that Spirit now. We’re walking into uncharted territory. We need wisdom and fortitude. Our scriptures promise us “a new heaven and a new earth.” If we look back now, with the hope of returning to the old, imperfect world that we’ve known so well, we’ll meet the same fate as Lot’s wife who turned back to watch the destruction of Sodom.
We, you and I, must be strong and courageous. Each step we take will be a step into this new, unchartered territory. We’ll experience pain. We’ll struggle. We must rely on the Spirit of light and truth that has been gifted to us for guidance. We need to invite and welcome the inspiration of the Spirit. But most of all – most of all, we must not be afraid!
Heavenly Father, author and giver of peace, in whose image and likeness each of us have been created with a dignity worthy of respect on earth and destined for eternal glory, listen to our prayer. Grant us the wisdom to see beyond the boundaries of race, religion and nation so that each of us may claim our heritage as your children, brothers and sisters to one another. May your Spirit strengthen us and lift our fear, so that united we may work with you in building the new earth you promised us. Amen.
We’ve been given a passage from the sixth chapter of John’s gospel for our reflection today, the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ. Today, I’d like to reflect on the meaning of the Eucharist by focusing on one sentence from that passage: “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Let’s begin by noting that John’s gospel, the last to be written, breaks from the pattern and style of the other gospels. When we notice that John’s text is departing from the other gospels, we know that he’s doing so to clarify his personal insight into the Christ-event. So, with that in mind let’s move on.
You might think that we would begin this reflection on the Eucharist by looking at the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. However, John’s account of the Last Supper doesn’t include Jesus giving new meaning to bread and wine: “This is my body – This is my blood.” Rather, John devotes his account of the Last Supper to Jesus’ final teaching and prayer for his disciples. He transfers his Eucharistic teaching from the Last Supper setting to the sixth chapter of his gospel. This is how John unfolds the teaching.
He begins with an account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, clearly a Eucharistic image in all the Gospels. But John adds details not used by the other gospel writers to enrich his teaching. Also, keep in mind that by the time John’s gospel is written the Christian community is quite established and is reflecting on the meaning of the Eucharist and its effect on the community. This is reflected throughout chapter six.
John’s account notes a boy who volunteers five barley loaves, the bread of the poor, and two fish to help feed the crowd. This detail is a subtle reference to the kingdom of heaven as it’s described in Mathew’s Gospel. “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4) By noting this poor boy offering all the food he had, John is highlighting the giving nature of the Eucharistic Community as it’s described in the Acts of the Apostles. “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.” (Acts: 4:32)
This boy’s generosity is an essential component for this Eucharistic manifestation of the kingdom of heaven. It’s what the Christian Community is based upon. Five barley loaves and two fish, freely and lovingly given, can feed five thousand people. But this isn’t a one-time miracle. There are still twelve baskets of leftovers remaining to feed other crowds that are hungry, not only for food, but for the bread of life!
John then moves on to another scene. He shifts from the grass-filled field of the multiplication of the loaves and fish to the sea. The disciples get into their boat to sail to the other side of the lake. A storm suddenly strikes. They’re filled with fear but become even more fearful when they see Jesus walking toward them on the water. As he’s urging them not to be afraid, they suddenly realize that they’ve arrived safely at the shore.
Like the accounts of the resurrection and the transfiguration, the disciples recognize Jesus but also realize that he’s different. He has transcended time and space and the laws of nature. He can walk on water! His message is the same here on the stormy lake as it will be at the garden tomb. “Do not be afraid!” Fear has no place in the Eucharistic community because the risen-transfigured Christ is always with them, feeding them and banishing their fears.
As his narrative goes on, the crowd that had been fed with the loaves and fish the previous day find Jesus and his disciples on the other side of the lake. Jesus gives them an interpretation of the miracle they had witnessed. It’s during this teaching, called the Bread of Life Discourse, that Jesus proclaims to the crowd, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (John 6:51)
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven” evokes the image of the manna that fed the Jewish people during their journey to the Promised Land. However, manna was only a symbol of what was to come. The “living bread from heaven” is the transfigured-resurrected Christ, whose living presence nourishes the community as it sows the seeds of the kingdom of God on earth.
When we eat this bread, we share in the divine life of the resurrected – transfigured Christ who lives forever. However, this heavenly bread isn’t magical food. A single bite of this bread doesn’t automatically transport us into the life of the eternal One. There’s much more to the Eucharist, “the living bread that came down from heaven.”
Jesus’ continues his explanation. “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” This statement is so wonderful, and so essential to an understanding of the Eucharist. Christ is not only resurrected and transfigured; he’s, at the same time, profoundly bound to the earth. John stresses this idea by his use of the word “flesh,” sarx in Greek. This doesn’t mean just a human body. John would have chosen the Greek word “soma” if he meant merely “a body.” Sarx is flesh and blood – corruptible, like the carcass of a dead animal. John stresses this aspect of Christ quite graphically in his account of Thomas after the resurrection who declared to the other disciples who have been telling him that they had seen the risen Lord: “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
John is teaching that the resurrected transfigured Lord is, at one and the same time, flesh and blood. He’s with the Father eternally, but in no way has he abandoned any of us. Christ, the bread of life, is the food of the Eucharistic community – a fragile, flesh and blood community. He’s the bread that came down from heaven, connecting the divine life to the world – offering it eternal life. We remind ourselves that while we live in this wonderful, still-evolving earth we have the mission to sow the seeds of the kingdom of heaven. We remind ourselves, today, that as his Eucharistic community we are the body of Christ.
I’m going to begin this week’s reflection by bringing into focus three quotes from the scriptures we’re reading today. In the first, Moses prays for his people as they are about to begin their journey to the Promised Land. In the second, Paul directs the Christians in Corinth to change their ways so that they may enjoy God’s gift of peace. In the Gospel, Jesus defines his mission and, in doing so, presents us with a new and radical vision of God. I encourage you to spend some time in personal reflection on these three sentences before you read my reflection. What feelings and thoughts do they bring up in you, today? After you’ve spent some time in reflection move on, and perhaps add my reflection to your own.
Exodus “If I find favor with you, O Lord, come along in our company. This is a stiffnecked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins and receive us as your own.”
Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians “Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Gospel of John “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world may be saved through him.”
Many months ago, when it was first reported that government law enforcement along our Southern border was arresting and separating children from their families and putting them into cages, I stood in front of you during a Sunday Mass and admitted that I was so appalled by what I had seen on the news that I was rendered speechless. I only spoke for about a minute that day. All I could say was, “How could we have allowed this?”
Today nothing has changed for these unfortunate people. Children are still being separated and put into cages. The only thing that has changed is that these people have been generally forgotten by the American people. These children have been traumatized and, if they survive Covid19 as they’re imprisoned in their cages, will carry the trauma with them for the rest of their lives. All this hostility and torture just to fulfill a campaign promise made to white supremacists. I’m still asking, “How could we have allowed this?”
Now, after our entire nation has witnessed the sadistic nine-minute execution/ murder of George Floyd on national TV, millions of our fellow citizens are asking, “How could we have allowed this?” This is the most important question we’ve ever asked as a nation. That question is the beginning of a national examination of conscience. We don’t need to point fingers at anyone. We, each of us, first need to confess that, throughout our four-hundred year history, we have been complicit in racism and injustice by our communal silence.
We were complicit when the first slave ships were greeted at our harbors in 1619. We were complicit when the genocide of the indigenous people of America began. We were complicit in 1867 when the Supreme Court in the case of Dred Scott vs. Sanford declared that black people, whether enslaved or free, were not included in the rights afforded to American citizens.
We were complicit when Japanese Americans were taken from their homes and placed in internment camps. We were complicit when we annihilated the population of two Japanese cities with atomic bombs. We were complicit when we dropped Agent Orange on the population of Vietnam for ten years.
We must confess that we’re a stiff-necked people. We don’t acknowledge that we’re the children of our history. We don’t acknowledge that the sins of our fathers and mothers rest heavy on our shoulders. We don’t agree with one another, and so we have no peace. We’ve lost our souls – personal and communal, and so we suffer the hell of inequality and injustice. We lack compassion for one another and so we can’t love – we can’t heal.
Today I pray that we, as a nation, may have the courage to begin the long and painfully difficult process of confessing the sins we have committed over the past four hundred years. We have to acknowledge that we must mend our ways. We have to begin healing our nation by working to heal each other’s wounds.
In the gospel Jesus tells us that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” God’s love is always embracing us – saints and sinners alike that we might be saved. We need to reach out to the power of God’s love. We need the courage to be truthful about our past. We need to stoke up the courage to be truthful about our present. We need to trust the divine energy that can heal us. We need to envision the new world our scriptures prophesied. We need to move forward. Each and every one of us needs to hope again.
Today is a very special day for several reasons. First of all, it’s Pentecost. Secondly, it’s the Feast of the Visitation. Thirdly, it’s my 45 th anniversary of ordination. These three celebrations may, at first, seem disconnected, but in my mind and heart, they’re linked together in a wonderful way. So, I’ll draw my reflection today from all three.
Pentecost floods my personal, and our communal, imagination with images of power and transformation – a noise from the sky – a driving wind – tongues of fire ecstatic babbling. Let’s begin our reflection by remembering the great theophany on Mount Sinai, the day God spoke with Moses.
“There were peals of thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast…Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, for the Lord came down upon it, for the Lord came down upon it with fire…the trumpet blast grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking and God answering him in thunder.” Power. Awe. The voice of God! Let’s continue with the images by recalling the first sentence of the bible. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.” God spoke a command from within that mighty wind. With that single command, “Let there be light,” the darkness of chaos was replaced by the magnificent order of the cosmos.
Let’s not forget the moment Moses encountered God in fire. “Moses came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There an angel of the Lord appeared to him in fire flaming out of a bush. As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed…When the Lord saw him coming over to look at it more closely, God called out to him from the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’”
Lastly, let’s remember what happened to Saul before he was anointed King of Israel. “When they were going from there to Gibeah, a band of prophets meet him (Saul), and the Spirit of God rushed upon him, so that he joined them in their prophetic state.” Ecstasy!
The account of Pentecost merges all these images. We recognize tremendous power and creative energy in the images of the loud noise from the sky and the mighty wind. We see the divine presence linking itself to the disciples through tongues of fire. We see the rush of the Spirit wash over them, throwing them into ecstasy. They begin to pray in unintelligible words – the language of the Spirit.
As I reflect on my fifty-two years of religious life, and forty-five years of parochial ministry, I can see all the elements of Pentecost manifesting themselves throughout those years. Of course, there wasn’t the great drama Moses experienced at Sinai, but that’s not to say that I didn’t experience a little theophany now and then.
In the course of five years of psychoanalysis I experienced several powerfully spiritual moments. Once, while lying on the analyst’s couch exploring an image I had in a dream, I was suddenly overtaken by a profound peace and an overwhelming sense of security. I knew, in the depths of my heart, for a few, seemingly eternal moments, that I was being held by God. I felt the comfort of a mother and a father. I felt absolute, unconditional love. This happened thirty years ago but, even today, when I sometimes speak about this dream, I weep with emotion just as I did that day on the analyst’s couch.
I’ve never fallen into an ecstasy but I know the Spirit was working on me when, on a pilgrimage, I cried for seven days while never experiencing a moment of sadness – only awe and gentle healing. I never saw anything. I never heard anything. I just felt the most gentle embrace of Love.
I’ve never heard God call out my name, but I can identify little whisperings and even nudges. The day I sat on the hill of the Areopagus in Athens looking across at the Pantheon, I was gifted a word of wisdom. I was twenty-four at the time. I had never seen anything so breathtakingly beautiful. The word came as I read St. Paul’s address to the members of the Areopagus. “Men of Athens…the God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands.” I looked again at the beauty of that still magnificent temple. Little did I know at the time that I would be handed the task of restoring and maintaining a church building for twenty-one years of my life! That moment in Athens was a caution. I’ve thought back to that moment often. The Spirit was alerting me. There was to be more to my life than rebuilding and repairing. I was not to think of the church as a building. The Church was living people – good, bad, pleasant and unpleasant. The Church was the People of God ministering to me as I would minister to them.
This leads me to the third element of the day – the Feast of the Visitation. When Mary said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word,” she took a bet on God. She believed she could say yes to the unknown because she trusted God’s goodness and love. Her “yes” didn’t separate her from the world around her. It did just the opposite. It energized her to reach out in loving care to others. As soon as the angel departed, she immediately left her home to support Elizabeth for the remainder of her pregnancy.
I was very aware of the grace Mary received with her “yes” the day I was ordained. I had no idea of what the future might hold for me but I committed myself to say yes to whatever I would be asked to do. My yes brought blessings, challenges and sometimes suffering. But I can ditto Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien.” I don’t regret a thing. Everything I’ve experienced had a purpose, either for me personally, or for the greater good. I’m thankful for my life and the ministry I’ve experienced.
I’ve brought up these simple but, to me, important Spirit moments to encourage you to reflect on your own history. What were some of your pivotal, Pentecost moments? The Pentecost event continues to unfold in each of our lives. As people of faith, it’s important to discern the Spirit’s activities because it strengthens us, and gives us the courage we need to live our personal mission. There’s a Pentecost waiting for us every day. Don’t be surprised by the loud sound from the sky, or the mighty wind, the fire of Divine love or a prayer prayed without words. We began as a Pentecost people. We will continue as a Pentecost people until “Christ is all in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
If there has ever been a time that we needed to hear an encouraging word it’s today. Well, this last Sunday of Easter is shouting out the word GLORY! through three wonderful scripture passages that I encourage you to read after you’ve read my reflection. Let’s be attentive to these words of encouragement.
The first scripture, from the Acts of the Apostles, is so simple that its message can be easily overlooked. It’s the conclusion of the account of the ascension. Jesus called the disciples together and instructed them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. He then ascended to the Father. The disciples returned to the upper room in Jerusalem where they “devoted themselves to prayer.” The passage ends by naming the people who were gathered there: the eleven apostles, “together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”
This image of the gathering in the upper room represents the Church in prayer, that day and throughout time. The community in Jerusalem was frightened, and at a loss for what to do next. Their patient waiting in prayer was their preparation for the coming glory. In a way, they were doing what we’re doing right now, and it formed them into a true community.
It’s ironic that in this time of quarantine and social distancing we’re closer, perhaps, then we’ve ever been. Concerned for each other’s welfare, we keep each other in mind. We reach out to assist each other with food or an encouraging phone call. It’s interesting how distancing is bringing us together on a deeper level. This spiritual connecting is, perhaps, the most powerful prayer we’ve ever raised. It’s the prayer leading us to glory. It’s the same prayer that prepared the early community for its mission.
The second scripture, taken from Peter’s letter, adds an unexpected twist to our reflection on glory. It speaks of suffering. Yet, the word “glory” is used three times in this tiny, three sentence passage. What does suffering have to do with glory? Here’s what Peter writes.
“Rejoice to the extent that you share in the suffering of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly.” This statement doesn’t focus solely on the cross. By not referring to the suffering of Jesus, but instead, the suffering of Christ, Peter is focusing our attention on the Christ who is past, present and future, and who carries the wounds of the crucifixion on his glorified body. His wounds connect with our wounds, and our wounds connect us with his resurrected glory. So much so, that Peter can write: “If you are insulted in the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” Concluding his message, Peter writes: “Whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed but glorify God because of the name.” In a very real way, this reading is meant to encourage us in our struggle and suffering today. The wounded, resurrected Christ is walking with us through this trial. In fact, he’s wrapping us in his cloak of glory.
These thoughts of prayer and suffering bring us to the gospel passage. It’s taken from Jesus’ beautiful prayer at the Last Supper. In this short passage he uses the word “glory” five times!
Drawing near to his passion, he prays to his Father: “Give glory to your Son, so that your Son may glorify you.”
He goes on to pray that the Father “might give eternal life to all those the Father has given him”. His use of the word “eternal” has nothing to do with time – it’s a quality. Eternal life is the very life of the Eternal One – the life the Son shares with the Father.
Jesus continues. “I revealed your name to those you gave me out of this world.” Knowing someone’s name means to possess that person – to become one with that person. Later in the prayer he clearly says, “I pray that they may all be one, Father. May they be in us just as you are in me and I am in you.”
In his prayer at the Last Supper Jesus revealed the true meaning of glory – entering the Divine Light. We would be wrong to think of this as a reward after we die. This glory is offered to us every moment of our lives.
We’re in a time of global trial and suffering. You might ask why God did this to us. That’s an understandable question. But ultimately, who can know the mind of God. Let’s take this moment as an opportunity to reflect on Christ’s promise of glory – the union of all creation with wounded, resurrected Christ. If we link our suffering to his we’ll begin to see the light of glory.
Look all around you. Have you ever seen so many people caring for each other – risking their lives for each other – feeding each other supporting each other. God is a community of three persons. This pandemic is bringing us together in a way we’ve never imagined. We’re forming little, neighborhood communities – national communities and, yes, a global community. We’re learning to work together to heal and renew the world God gave us. Together, let’s take one step at a time always keeping in mind Christ’s promise of glory. “May they all be one, as we Father are one.”
Ironically, the Feast of the Ascension is the day we begin our decent back down to earth. For forty days we’ve been contemplating the meaning of resurrection, just as the disciples had been doing. The account in the Act of the Apostles tells us that Jesus “presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” He was imparting his final teachings to them while preparing them for life after his departure. Now, at the very moment of Jesus’ ascension, while the disciples were looking up into the sky, “two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?’”
The two men dressed in white are the two men who, in Luke’s gospel, spoke to the women who came to the tomb on the day of the resurrection. They asked a similar question of the women at the tomb as they later asked the disciples on the day of the ascension. “Why are you looking among the dead for one who is alive?”
The two men in white are asking the women, and the disciples, to start thinking in a new way. Jesus has been raised from the dead and returned to the Father – he is Christ. They recognize Jesus, however, he’s different. He has a subtle body; he slips in and out of time and space. Doors don’t keep him out, but he’s not a spirit. He eats with them. In John’s gospel the resurrected Christ even makes breakfast for the apostles!
The questions of the two men dressed in white are an invitation to us to stop thinking in the old way when we believed that heaven was separated from earth. Think of the Easter Vigil service when we proclaim, “Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your King! Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes forever…Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth and we are reconciled with God.”
We so often listen to these words with our old ears – they only hear messages of doom and gloom – of an angry God demanding reparation for our mistakes. The message of resurrection is that heaven and earth are wedded! Christ himself manifests this in his body, a body that’s not bound by time and space, and yet carries his wounds. When Thomas put his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side he experienced the Christ event, immediately crying out, “My Lord and my God.” In Jesus Christ – heaven is united to earth. In Christ we are made whole and carry God within us.
But we need assistance to begin thinking in the new way – the way of resurrection. We need the Spirit’s assistance to claim the Christ in us – to do what Christ did – to love the way God loves. So, we turn our eyes to Pentecost. Stop looking among the dead for one who is alive. Stop looking to the sky to see where Jesus went. Christ is alive and present to us. Christ didn’t go anywhere. He’s in heaven and on earth. He’s is you and in me. In the Christ in us, heaven is wedded to earth.
“I will not leave you orphans.” These are Jesus’ words to me today. They’re so reassuring to hear. Residing in New York City during this terrible pandemic, I see Jesus’ promise coming through loud and strong every day.
Living across the street from Lenox Hill Hospital, I see the make-shift morgue on the street outside. Every day it reminds me of the sacrificial love of the doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, aids, janitors, and the food service staff who work with the infected every day.
When I hand my groceries to the cashier, I see Jesus’ sacrificial love in action. When I take a train or bus I thank God for these wonderful people endangering their lives every day to keep me moving along. When I get a Fresh Direct delivery, I pray for the wonderful soul who’s making sure I’m fed. When I receive the mail or order a pizza, I hear Jesus’ promise: “I will not leave you orphans.”
I try not to forget the farmers who make sure I get the food I need. I try not to forget the factory workers who make the things I need to function day to day. I grieve for the men and women who died at the Tyson Food plant in Iowa, the unseen and unappreciated heroes. They poured out their lives for me.
I want the economy to come back strong again. But whose economy will it be? These unsung heroes are the poorest paid people in the nation. Their economy hasn’t been changed at all it has only gotten more dangerous to drive the bus or deliver the pizza.
These men and women are maintaining the foundation of my society while I, safe and privileged, wait for everything “to get back to normal.” When that day comes these heroes will remain unappreciated and economically fragile.
As unjust and cruel as our world is, I look to these little people, misused and unappreciated, for inspiration. Whether they know it or not, they’re following Jesus’ commandment because they’re pouring themselves out in love every day. Every day, they whisper to me the great promise: “I will not leave you orphans.”
Father most loving,
thank you for giving me
an opportunity to reassess my commitment
as a disciple of Jesus.
I have for so long forgotten
your “little people.”
May they forgive me,
and may you forgive me.
I was consumed by my desire
for safety and comfort and status.
I’ve forgotten that only love matters –
love that manifests itself in sacrifice.
Thank you for your promise today,
“I will not leave you orphans.”