Sunday, October 31, 2010

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
From Automaticity to Attention
Picture: cc edenpictures
Dear sisters and brothers, do you ever feel grateful for the wonder of automation? I was thinking about this just a couple of days ago, as I was doing my laundry. All I had to do was throw my dirty clothes into the washer, add detergent, and press the right buttons. I could then go off and do whatever else I needed to do: read the newspapers, watch the news, check my email... Then I returned a little later to transfer my clothes to the dryer. And, in no time at all, my clothes were washed and dried. What was wonderful about the whole process was that I didn’t have to watch the machines do their work. I didn’t have to pay much attention to them. They knew when to stop on their own. That’s the marvel of it all. Automation saves you from having to pay constant attention.

But not everything is automatic. I know someone, for example, who once left a large pot of beans over the stove to boil, went off to do something else, and then promptly forgot all about the pot. Unfortunately, unlike the washer and the dryer, that stove was not automatic. It didn’t know when to stop boiling those beans. It needed more attention than our friend gave to it. As you can well imagine, there were no beans for dinner that night. 

Automation is great. But not everything is automatic. Some things require more attention. Which is why it’s important for us to be able to tell the difference. It’s important that we know when something is automatic and when it needs more attention.

And it is this difference between automation and attention that we need to keep carefully in mind as we meditate on our scripture readings today. Our readings invite us to reflect upon the way in which God relates to God’s creation. What is this relationship like? Some people may think that it is not much different from the way in which I relate to the washer and the dryer. It’s a relationship of automation. God simply pushes the buttons at the beginning, and then leaves the scene, returning only later, at the end of time. And, if the results are not up to God’s expectations, one can expect to be punished.

This is probably the kind of understanding that we find St. Paul arguing against in the second reading. It is likely that the Thessalonians have received a forged letter telling them that the day of the Lord is at hand. And they are alarmed. They think that, like the pot my friend placed on the stove, they have been left all alone to prepare for Christ’s second coming. And they’re not ready. They’re worried that God will return to find nothing but burnt beans. But Paul says that God has not left them alone. Paul reminds them that we always pray for you, that God may make you worthy of his calling... According to Paul, God does not leave us to prepare for Christ’s coming automatically, the way I leave the washer and the dryer to do my laundry. Instead, God pays careful attention to us. God is continually offering us the help that we need.

And the first reading helps us to deepen our understanding of God’s careful attention to creation, by reminding us that no created thing could be preserved, had it not been called forth by God. In other words, the very fact that we continue to exist is itself a sign that God is paying careful attention to us. God does not just create us and then leave us to make the best of our lives on our own. Instead, not only does God remain close to us, but the first reading even goes so far as to say that God’s imperishable spirit is in us, continually calling and guiding us, consistently caring for and paying attention to us. 

And it is this same spirit that we find at work in Jesus in the gospel (Luke 4:18). This is the spirit that moves Jesus to journey to Jerusalem. This is the spirit that sends him to seek out and to save the lost. In the ministry of Jesus, God shows God’s continual and careful attention to those whom God has created.

But there is something else in today’s gospel that we should find striking. Notice how the reading begins by telling us that Jesus had originally intended only to pass through Jericho. But he ends up staying at the house of Zacchaeus. What causes Jesus to change his mind? What is it about Zacchaeus, this chief tax collector who was also a wealthy man, that enables him to benefit from the ministry of Christ?

The answer is not difficult to discern. Rather than simply allowing Jesus to pass by, Zacchaeus took the trouble to climb a tree. Although he knew people didn't like him, he was willing to draw attention to himself, so that he could pay closer attention to Jesus. Zacchaeus did this -- he paid closer attention to Jesus -- not just by climbing the tree. We're told that he also gives half his possessions to the poor. In our reading from the New American Bible, Zacchaeus’ words are in the future tense. He tells Jesus:shall give to the poor. But some commentators tell us that, in the original Greek, the sentence is in the present tense. What Zacchaeus is telling Jesus is that he already gives, or is giving to the poor. On this reading, more than just climbing a tree, the apparently rich and sinful tax collector pays attention to God also by caring for the needy. Zacchaeus is able to benefit from Jesus' attention because he himself pays attention. And it is by his attention that salvation comes to stay in Zacchaeus' house.

All of which should lead us to reflect upon our own situations today. We all benefit from modern technology. We all enjoy the wonders of automation. But not everything is automatic. Some things need more attention. And the trick is being able to tell the difference. For example, does keeping a neighborhood safe involve automation or attention? Does it require of us nothing more than to pay our taxes promptly and then to leave everything to the police? Or are there perhaps also situations in which we need to do more, times when we need to pay more attention? Are there occasions when, like Zacchaeus, we need in some way to climb a tree? And could it be that how we deal with questions such as these will determine the state of our relationship with God? Could it be that the quality of our attention will determine whether or not salvation comes to stay in our house?

Sisters and brothers, how are we being invited to move from automation to attention today?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Christianity in Concrete
Sisters and brothers, do you remember the story of the three little pigs? Each of them built a house to protect themselves from the wicked wolf. The first two pigs were lazy. One built his house out of straw, and the other built his out of sticks. When the wolf came, he easily blew both their houses down. (The wolf had very strong lungs. He probably wasn’t a smoker.) Fortunately, the last pig was more hardworking than the first two. He took the trouble to build his house out of brick. The brick house was too solid to be blown down. It protected all three pigs from the dangerous wolf.

We all know this story well. We know that it teaches us the importance of hard work, of not cutting corners. Although it’s faster and much easier to build with sticks and straw, bricks are much more effective. But doesn’t the story also leave out something? Doesn’t it take something for granted? Was it really the bricks alone that provided the pigs with protection? Can you really build a house only out of bricks? No. In addition -- and just as important -- you also need something to bind the bricks together. You need concrete. Without concrete, the house would have been unstable. The little pigs would have remained exposed to danger from the wicked non-smoking wolf.

And it’s important for us to keep this in mind, because danger is also something that we find in our readings today. In the first reading, the people of Israel are in danger from the fierce army of Amalek. Against the Amalekites, the Israelites have to fight to protect themselves, to preserve their way of life. The woman in the gospel also faces danger. She is a victim of injustice of some sort. We’re not told what it is. Perhaps the rent her landlord is charging her is unreasonably high. Perhaps he has driven her out of her home. Whatever it is, like the Israelites in the first reading, she too has to fight for survival.

And, like the three little pigs, both the Israelites in the first reading and the woman in the gospel are not strong enough to protect themselves. They need a solid house of some kind. Being a widow, the woman in the gospel does not have a husband to fight on her behalf. She needs to rely on the judge for protection. And, in the first reading, the Israelites know that they can’t defeat the Amalekites on their own. They need God’s help. In the words of our responsorial psalm, they are convinced that their help is from the Lord who made heaven and earth.

But, in order to be protected, both the Israelites and the poor widow need something to connect them to their source of protection. They need concrete. In the gospel, this concrete is found in the faith of the poor widow herself. She persistently pesters the judge until he gives in to her demands. And Jesus says that if, like the widow, we were to persistently pester God for help, God will protect us.

Similarly, in the first reading, the Israelites find their concrete in Moses. Standing on a hill, Moses persistently prays to God for help. And, as long as Moses keeps his arms raised, as long as he keeps pestering God for help, the Israelites are protected. It is also important to notice that Moses doesn’t do this on his own. He has help. He is seated on a stone, and his arms are supported by Aaron and Hur. Just as the binding power of concrete is produced by mixing water, sand and cement, so too is the protective power of Moses produced by the blending of the faith of different people.

But is that all there is to it? Is the protective power of Moses and of the widow gained only by their persistence in prayer, their stubbornness in seeking help? Are they effective only because they are connected to heaven? Wouldn’t that be similar to coating only one side of a brick with concrete, and letting that layer dry without placing another brick on top of it? Wouldn’t the concrete be wasted? As with our story of the three little pigs, isn’t there something important that is being taken for granted here? Moses and the widow are effective not only because they pray unceasingly, but also because each of them remains persistently in touch with their respective situations of danger. The widow remains painfully aware of her own victimization by her adversary. And, by standing on a hill, Moses remains in full view of the tide of battle. The prayers of the widow and of Moses are effective because each of them remains in touch not just with the protection of heaven, but also with the dangers of earth.

And it is toward this same persistence in two directions, this same connection between heaven and earth, that Paul is encouraging Timothy to strive in the second reading. On the one hand, Paul tells Timothy to be hardworking in studying the sacred Scriptures, because they will connect him with God. On the other hand, Paul also reminds Timothy of his responsibility to proclaim that same Word of God persistently, whether it is convenient or inconvenient. It is only in this way -- only by being persistent in two directions, toward heaven and toward earth -- that Timothy will remain rooted in faith in Jesus Christ. For this too is what Christ came to do: to be that concrete connection between heaven and earth.

And, as followers of Christ, this too is what we are each called to be. It is in this that our faith consists. Like Moses and the widow, like Paul and Timothy, we too are called to act as concrete. We too are called to offer protection by remaining connected, not just to God in prayer, but also to the many different situations of danger in which our world finds itself.

According to a recent issue of America Magazine, for example, almost 44 million Americans now live below the poverty line... and 21 percent of all U.S. children -- up from 16 percent just 10 years ago -- are growing up poor. If this is the situation in the most advanced country on this earth, what might the situation look like in other less developed lands? And, as faithful Christians, how many of us are persistently trying to connect this situation of danger to the protection that God wishes to provide?

Sisters and brothers, we are all probably quite familiar with that bible verse in which Jesus refers to his followers as salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5:13, 14). Today, perhaps our readings are also inviting us also to be concrete in the House of the Lord. Today, perhaps we are being reminded that it is upon us that the little pigs of this world are depending for their protection from dangerous wolves. But, as Jesus wonders at the end of today’s gospel, the question is: when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

Sisters and brothers, how are we being called to be concrete Christians today?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Genuine Gratitude and Gift-Bearing Greeks 
Picture: cc myhsu
Sisters and brothers, if one day a stranger suddenly shows up at your door and presents you with a stack of hundred dollar bills, what would you do? It’s quite likely that you won’t accept it, right? At least not right away. You’d want to find out the reason for this gift. You’d want to check to see if there are any strings attached. We’ve all probably heard the expression beware of Greeks bearing gifts. It’s a reference to the Trojan War. For years, the Greeks had been trying to capture the city of Troy, but without success. Finally, they pretended to retreat, leaving behind the gift of a large wooden horse. Seeing that their enemies had fled, the Trojans brought the horse into their city, not realizing that the Greeks had hidden soldiers in the belly of the horse. Once inside the city, these soldiers opened the city-gates for the rest of their comrades and Troy was destroyed. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Those so-called gifts may actually lead to your destruction.

And the expression is true not just of the ancient Greeks. The story is also told of a government official in China, who had a very curious habit. Every time one of his relatives came to visit him at his office, he would hurriedly leave the building through a back entrance. You know why? After he became an official, this man found that many of his relatives -- some of whom he didn’t even recognize -- suddenly came knocking on his door, bringing gifts. This put him in a very difficult position. To reject the gifts would make him appear proud and arrogant. But to accept the gifts would mean he was obliged to show gratitude by performing favors for the giver. And because the penalties for corruption were very severe, he knew that, if he wasn’t careful, those gifts could lead to his own destruction.

Beware of Greeks (or Chinese relatives) bearing gifts... Beware of those kinds of manipulative transactions that only look like gift-giving and gratitude on the surface but, in reality, are forms of corruption that could eventually lead to one’s destruction.

And a similar warning can be given in the spiritual life as well. Consider, for example, the curious practice of the prophet Elisha in today’s first reading. When the foreigner, Naaman, offers him a gift of gratitude in exchange for being healed of his leprosy, Elisha stubbornly refuses to take it. Why? Could it be because to accept such a gift would tend to cheapen the healing he had performed, corrupting it into a kind of manipulative transaction that leads only to destruction? Consider also the curious practice of Jesus in today’s gospel. Although he tells all ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priests, that is, to make the ritual offering of gratitude for their healing, Jesus expresses disappointment when nine of them actually follow his instructions, leaving only the foreigner, the Samaritan, to return to give thanks to God. What did the other nine do that was wrong? Could it be that in being concerned only with following the prescriptions of the Law, without being moved by genuine gratitude, they had somehow corrupted their experience of healing?

If this is true, then what does uncorrupted gift-giving, what does genuine gratitude, look like in the spiritual life? First of all, true gift-giving is not manipulative. It does not say to God, for example, I promise to quit smoking... if you will find me a wife. In contrast to this kind of giving, which tries to influence and manipulate God into giving us what we want, true gift-giving and genuine gratitude involve a change in the one who is grateful. Consider again the experience of Naaman. Before his healing, he probably believed in the existence of many gods. And, being a Syrian, he worshipped a god different from the God of Israel. But after his healing, his gratitude causes a radical change in him. He now proclaims that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel. And not only does he declare his belief in one God, he also commits himself to the worship of this God alone. I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except the Lord. We see the same thing in the actions of the Samaritan leper in the gospel. After his healing, we find him not only glorifying God but also thanking Jesus, a Jew. True gratitude leads to conversion not manipulation. It brings the grateful person into a loving intimate relationship with God.

And this conversion, this radical change in relationship, is not just something that happens inside the grateful person. Gratitude is expressed outwardly in concrete action. In contrast to the kind of giving that tries to burden the other with an obligation to make a return gift, the truly grateful person willingly takes a burden upon oneself. In the first reading, for example, before he leaves Elisha, Naaman asks to be burdened with two mule-loads of earth, which he will use to build a shrine to the Lord in his own country. In the second reading too, Paul speaks of his relationship to Jesus Christ in terms of a burden that he bears. Such is my gospel, he says, for which I am suffering, even to the point of chains, like a criminal. And Paul is willing to bear this burden of gratitude, he is willing to wear these chains of love, for the benefit of others. He declares that he suffers willingly for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.

Which brings us to the most important characteristic of genuine gratitude. While manipulative gift-giving can often lead to destruction, genuine gratitude leads to eternal life. As Jesus tells the Samaritan leper, Stand up and go; your faith has saved you. By making him truly grateful, the Samaritan’s faith has brought him into a loving relationship with God in Christ. By being grateful, the Samaritan has come to know Christ. And by this knowledge, by this new relationship, he is saved. As we are told in John’s Gospel: this is eternal life, that they should know you the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ (John 17:3). In contrast, although the other nine were also healed of their leprosy, and although they made the offering prescribed by the Law, they missed their chance of getting to know the Lord. They missed their opportunity for salvation.

It becomes obvious then, sisters and brothers, what kind of gift-giving, what kind of gratitude we should all be aiming at in our own lives of faith. It is the kind that both the Syrian and Samaritan lepers experienced and expressed. And it is for this same experience that we prayed in our opening prayer just now, when we asked the Lord to make God’s love the foundation of our lives, that our love for the Lord may express itself in the eagerness to do good for others. Today the scriptures are warning us, in our lives of faith, to beware of the kind of gift-giving of the Greek soldiers and the Chinese relatives. For this leads to destruction. Instead we are to aim for the gratitude of the Syrian and Samaritan lepers. For this alone leads to life.

Sisters and brothers, when we examine our own lives of faith today, which of these do we find, the manipulative gift-giving of the Greeks or the genuine gratitude of the Samaritan?

Sunday, October 03, 2010

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Kindling the Fire
Picture: cc simon dukes
Dear sisters and brothers, the story is told of a man who discovered the art of making fire and shared it with a tribe of people living in the mountains. Not only did he show them how to make fire, he also taught them how use it. He showed them how to light up their homes at night, how to warm themselves in winter, how to cook their food when they were hungry. Unfortunately, although the people were very grateful to him for this wonderful gift, their leaders became jealous of the man’s popularity and had him killed. For a while after his death, the people continued to make fire, and to pass on the art of fire-making to their children.

But then something strange began to happen. The people became more and more concerned only with the external details of fire-making. Some of them even began to argue about whether or not certain tools and techniques were more authentic than others. So focused were they on the externals of fire-making that, as incredible as it sounds, they gradually forgot all about the fire itself. Although they continued to perform the practices they had learned, and even to pass them on to their children, they didn’t actually make or use fire anymore. And, as you might imagine, after several generations of this, some of the children eventually gave up the practice of fire-making altogether. What’s the point of tiring yourself out by vigorously rubbing two sticks together for no apparent reason? Better to spend your time doing something more productive and fun.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps a similar story might be told about our faith. Just as the techniques of fire-making can seem foolish when their connection with fire is lost, so too can the practice of coming to Mass, for example, or of saying our prayers, seem pointless when we lose sight of its connection with our lives of faith. Thankfully, our scripture readings today help us to recall this connection by inviting us to think about what faith should look like.

What do you think of when you hear the word faith? One of the things I think of is the Profession of Faith that we make every Sunday, the same one we will all be making after this homily: We believe in one God, the Father... But is faith only about professing a series of beliefs, sort of like making a pledge of allegiance? If it were, then it would seem unnecessary to do it publicly every week at Mass. Couldn’t you believe in something without having to profess it regularly? But our readings today tell us that faith is more than that. Notice how, in the second reading, Paul encourages Timothy to remain faithful. More than simply reminding him about what they believe in, Paul tells Timothy to stir into flame the gift of God that he received when Paul laid his hands and prayed over him. More than simply a series of beliefs, for Paul, faith is a life-giving fire, a burning flame. And Paul asks Timothy to continue cultivating this fire of faith, this spirit of... power and love and self-control. And isn’t this why we come to church, why we say our prayers and profess our faith? It’s not just because we are commanded to do these things. More importantly, we do them because these practices help us to keep the flame of our faith burning in our hearts and in our lives.

But what does it do for us, this fire of faith? What can we use it for? According to our readings, during difficult times, our faith is especially useful, because it teaches us to wait. In the first reading, for example, the Babylonians are oppressing the people of Israel. And the prophet Habakkuk is upset by all the destruction and violence, the strife and discord that he sees around him. He complains to God. I cry for help, he says, but you do not listen! In response, God gives Habakkuk a vision of a time of relief. But this time will not come immediately. It will be delayed. God tells the prophet that he must wait for it. And the thing that will help him to wait is his faith.

In the gospel too, Jesus speaks about faith in terms of waiting. He reminds us that, in relation to God, we are not masters but servants. We do not call the shots. We should not expect to receive immediately whatever it is we may want. Instead, we should be willing to wait, as all humble servants do.

But it is important for us to be clear what this waiting in faith looks like for a Christian. Some people may think that our faith works in the same way a tranquilizer like Valium does. It helps us to wait by deadening our pain and putting us to sleep, so that we do nothing about our situation. But that is not so. When we need a job, for example, it is not enough just to say a prayer and to wait at home doing nothing. Instead, our readings show us a very different image of waiting. To see this, we need to recall that, in today’s gospel, Jesus is speaking to his disciples while he himself is on a journey to Jerusalem. And we know what awaits him there. We know that although he is heading towards his resurrection on Easter Sunday, he must first submit himself to imprisonment and torture and death on a cross. Jesus’ faith in his heavenly Father moves him to wait for the gift of new life, not by falling asleep and doing nothing, but by remaining awake, and walking to Jerusalem. Even though Jesus knows that his work of bringing good news to the poor (Luke 4:18) will lead him to his death, he does not stop. He continues walking until he reaches his destination.

There are, of course, obstacles along the way. In the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22), for example, Jesus is afraid. He asks his Father to remove the cup of suffering from him. But his faith enables him to overcome his fear. Like what happens to that mulberry tree in today’s gospel, by faith, Jesus' fear is uprooted and planted in the sea of the Father’s love. Jesus shows us that to have faith is not just to wait for consolation, but also to continue walking on the path of service. To have faith is to allow the fire of faith to transform the crosses of our suffering into trees bearing new life.

Some years ago, I was called to the hospital. Someone was dying. Entering the ward, I knew immediately that I had arrived too late. The patient had died. The family members were gathered around the bed, grief-stricken. Some were weeping openly. Others looked lost and confused. Their sorrow was unmistakable. What could I say or do to help? Feeling a little lost myself, I opened my prayerbook and invited the family members to join me as together we performed the practices and recited the words prescribed for such occasions. We made the sign of the cross. I sprinkled holy water. We listened to the Word of God. We prayed for one another. And as we did all this, I sensed a change in the atmosphere in that hospital room. More than tears of grief, something else began to fill our eyes. And, in addition to the sorrow of loss, something else began to move our hearts. I left the hospital that day feeling that I’d experienced God. And it was not really my doing. I had led the prayers and performed the practices, but through them God had kindled a fire in our hearts that day, the fire of faith.

Sisters and brothers, what are we doing to keep this fire burning within, among, and through us today?