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Sunday, 05 July 2020 / Published in Church Reflections

REFLECTION

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.”

Sunday, 28 June 2020 / Published in Church Reflections

REFLECTION

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?

Sunday, 21 June 2020 / Published in Church Reflections

REFLECTION

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!

PRAYER

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.

Sunday, 14 June 2020 / Published in Church Reflections

REFLECTION

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.

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