Sunday, March 20, 2011

11-03-20: 2nd Sunday of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 12:1-4 / Psalm 33 / 2 Timothy 1:8-10 / Matthew 17:1-9
The images of earthquake and tsunami from Japan last week were, to say the least, unnerving; the massive destruction only surmounted by the hovering threat of radiation poisoning on a massive scale. At times like these human empathy seems to overcome cultural and religious differences and the nobility of the human spirit shines through the darkness of such cataclysmic events.

But not everyone reacts with empathy. As in the aftermath of 9/11 and the earthquake in Haiti, it’s never long till someone feels the necessity to interpret the events “biblically” - as a sign of divine punishment. Jerry Falwell, interpreting 9/11 and the brutal murder of 3,000 people as God’s punishment on America for its permissive attitude toward gays. Pat Robertson, claiming that Haitians had made a pact with the devil and so must suffer the devastation rendered by last year’s earthquake. Now, TV’s Glenn Beck has suggested the Japanese tsunami was an act of divine wrath because we’re not following the Ten Commandments – though he doesn’t explain why the tsunami hit them if we were the ones in a state of non-compliance.

These kinds of accusations, of course, can never be proven or disproven. What such reactions illustrate is a certain desperation regarding faith. If God isn’t responsible for such cataclysmic events, then we are all subject to nature’s seeming capriciousness; while, if I believe that my obedience to God will protect me from the cruelty of nature, then I can feel more secure in the face of terror. Although media types like Beck and Robertson do us no service by their proclamations, they do represent a deep-seated dilemma for anyone who struggles with biblical faith: does the Bible really predict future events? Is Nature merely a vehicle for the divine will? Is God as capricious as the Bible sometimes presents him?

The reading from Genesis this week is a case in point. In the hands of biblical literalists, the call of Abraham is the reason for much of our present political turmoil in the Middle East, because the call of Abraham is intimately bound with the promise of land and nationhood. God tells Abraham to “Go forth” from his home “to a land which I will show you.” There, in that promised land, God pledges to make of Abraham a great nation. And so, millennia later, Israelis continue to claim “the land,” building homes on property already occupied by others and claiming it their divine right to do so. To be fair: If we take the Bible literally – how can we possibly disagree?

But, then again, what about the promise of that great nation, “more numerous than the sands on the shores of the sea”? Current demographics demonstrate that, although Christians now outnumber Muslims by just over a billion people, the rate by which Islam is increasing far surpasses that of Christianity. Thus Islam, not Christianity (and certainly not Judaism with a mere fifteen million adherents worldwide) is the religion of the twenty-first century and of the foreseeable future. Might we not then read the divine promise as having already been fulfilled, but not in the way we expected? Abraham has become a great nation – but through Ishmael’s progeny, not Isaac’s: the biblical prophecy has become a Qur’anic one. In other words, you can read into the Bible (and the Qur’an) virtually anything you want – but it might not get you any closer to the truth.

If a reasonable faith is to survive this literalist onslaught, the biblical God so often depicted as arbitrary and capricious must be understood in historical context – that is, although inspired, the Bible remains a product of the culture and circumstance of those who wrote it. Such a fact demands we interpret the biblical revelation with the use of reason and experience. Apart from the specifics of an ancient real estate deal Abraham worked out with God, the import of the Genesis story has more to do with hope than property. Abraham, at a very old age, is invited to reinvent himself, make a fresh start of things, leave his old life and begin a new one. In the wake of the devastation in Japan, where so many have lost everything, might we not invoke that biblical promise of hope - rather than focus on the hackneyed theme of retribution - in understanding the signs of these troubling times?

11-03-13: 1st Sunday of Lent

First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7 / Psalm 51 / Romans 5:12-19 / Matthew 4:1-11
The New York Times Science Times did a piece last week on left-handedness, pointing out that the phenomenon occurs in about 10% of the population. Researchers understand it to be a very complicated issue that no one gene or even one part of the brain controls. The article did not mention, however, the attempt by Catholic first-grade teachers of old who attempted to eliminate left-handedness as rapidly as Jonas Salk did polio, the cure being a few whacks with the ruler to “teach” the left-handed child to use his right hand. They adhered, no doubt, to that old wives’ tale which claimed left-handedness was not only a defect but a sign of wickedness to a degree, mirrored linguistically in the Latin word for “left” (sinister) which, of course, comes directly into English as “sinister,” a synonym for evil. The article pointed out that President Obama is left-handed - something his critics might see as pejoratively indicative of his politics, although the first President Bush was also left handed. Some presidential trivia buffs claim that President Regan was in fact ambidextrous, a trait mirroring his transformation from liberal President of the Actors’ Guild to conservative President of the United States, a journey requiring the ability to feel at home on both the left and right sides of the aisle - albeit not at the same time.

Evil is a prominent theme in the readings on this First Sunday of Lent: from the loss of paradise through Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience to the gospel account of the temptations Jesus endured in the desert. Evil, as the devil, is not some amorphous reality but given character in both stories: a snake in Genesis, Satan in the gospel. Over the centuries, though, the devil’s been given a bad rap, blamed for lots of things he may have suggested but didn’t actually do. The devil made me do it is the excuse we humans love to give so we might not feel so guilty about acting on his suggestions. We conveniently forget Satan merely suggested while we actually acted.

If there were to be a biography written about the devil it would probably begin with the Book of Job where Satan is, in fact, not the devil we’ve come to know but a messenger sent by God to test Job. It takes quite a while after the Book of Job was written for Satan to morph into that personification of evil we’ve come to know as the devil. It’s even more unclear how Satan and the fallen angel, Lucifer, became identified as one in the same.

As tempter, or better translated, “tester” – Satan might think he is sabotaging the divine plan but, in fact, he is unwittingly serving God’s purpose, because Satan is the reluctant revealer of our true identity. When Satan tempts Jesus in the desert he tempts him with the very thing Jesus must struggle to overcome - becoming a political Messiah or a conjurer of magic. Likewise for us. A temptation is not worth its salt if it tempts with things that hold no interest for us. Temptations are difficult to overcome because they touch upon the truth of who we are, expressed in our desires and needs. If we’re never tempted by anything we’ll never know our inner weakness or our inner strength. Temptations test the mettle of our character. And, if we fall, how we recover can be the greatest building block of character. The fact that Jesus was himself tempted by Satan shows that a temptation, in itself, is no sin. As a matter of fact, temptation serves to help us face our true selves and not some imagined idealized self we wish we were. Temptation (and the tempter) helps us meet ourselves where we’re at and not where we think we should be.

So, if you’re left-handed (in any way), rejoice. It’s only when you try to hide your true self that you lose your way.

11-03-06: 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 11:18,26-28,32 / Psalm 31 / Romans 3:21-25,28 / Matthew 7:21-27
It’s comforting to know that Catholics, at least in this diocese, don’t take the Bible too literally. There’s even proof of this. You just need to take a trip to Breezy Point – that gated beach community on the western tip of the Rockaway Peninsula - where everyone has obviously not heeded Jesus’ warning in today’s gospel and all residents have deliberately built their houses on sand. The rains have often come and the wind has many a time howled but houses are still standing, albeit with frequent use of multiple sump pumps.

The metaphor, though, is a solid one, urging us to build our lives on solid ground and not passing fancy. But solid ground is made of many different kinds of rock. Taking the metaphor a bit further we might wonder, in this day and age, if it indeed matters which “rock” we choose to build upon.

The reading from Deuteronomy explains that the Law (Torah) is the rock by which we are saved, while the reading from Romans makes the radical claim that the Law is itself useless in regard to salvation. The rock on which to build your life, St. Paul insists, is faith in Christ. Yet, as an observant Jew, Jesus himself would have donned the phylacteries, illustrated in that first reading, and bound his wrist and arm and forehead with small black boxes containing snippets of the Torah before he began to pray. Seeing Orthodox Jewish men preparing to pray in this fashion always reminds me (no offense intended) of the Borg – that sci-fi amalgamation of human and machine. But, as those Bible-belt evangelicals are wont to say, if it was good enough for Jesus

This deliberation between what we, as Christians, follow in the Old Testament Law, and what we discard, has always been problematic. Though the Church teaches that the Old Testament remains valid, we obviously have not kept many of the precepts it imposes. We’ve changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, we don’t keep kosher, we eat forbidden foods, and we don’t circumcise male children as a religious rite. On the other hand some of us claim the Bible reveals things it obviously doesn’t. Take all the fuss about marriage of late. The government no doubt has the right to define marriage as it wishes, but it’s stretching the truth more than a little when legislators suggest that the Bible tells them that marriage should be between “one man and one woman.” Homosexuality notwithstanding, you have to read pretty far into the Old Testament till you get to a time when monogamy was the norm.

Last week the Revered Peter Gomes of Harvard died. He made quite a stir decades back when he declared himself to be gay. Gomes spent a good deal of time writing about the Bible, pointing out that it can prove a very dangerous thing to take the Bible all by itself, out of context so to speak. After all, the Bible was used to defend slavery as well as the liberation of slaves; to support the racism of apartheid as well as contributing to apartheid’s demise. Gomes claimed that religious fundamentalism, evinced by a literal interpretation of the Bible, is dangerous precisely because it cannot accept ambiguity and is thus inherently intolerant.

“The Bible,” Gomes said, ‘is not a book – it’s a library.” It’s a group of books that need to be interpreted in the context of their particular time and circumstance by each succeeding generation. Otherwise we’d still be practicing polygamy and stoning women for committing adultery. Oops, come to think of it, some people still do. But they’re the type who tend to claim Intelligent Design as scientific fact, believe the earth to be no more than ten thousand years old, and see racial segregation as a biblical injunction. They tend not to be Catholic, thank God, and they’d probably never buy real estate in Breezy Point.

11-02-27: 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 49:14-15 / Psalm 62 / 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 / Matthew 6:24-34
Mystery is not something we can know nothing about; it’s just something we cannot know everything about. So said the Catholic apologist, Frank Sheed, of publishing fame. Yet even those parts of mystery we do encounter remain elusive and for the most part substantially incommunicable. Teilhard de Chardin, a mysterious figure himself, would write that “the incommunicable part of us is the pasture of God.” And St. Paul tells us in today’s second reading that we are “stewards of the mysteries of God.” We might take it all a little further and picture that divine pasture where mysteries abound as a part of us. We carry it around with us like an imprint. It fuses with our unique identity. It becomes inseparable from who we are.

Religion can help or hinder us in our exploration upon that pasture of God. If religion becomes too routine, a balance sheet recording the fulfillment of ritual obligations, it can divert us from the challenge of facing that interior mystery which is confounding and even painful. Religion, as C.G. Jung ironically pointed out, can become the very thing that protects us from the experience of God. But if religion is allowed to capture our imagination it may indeed be the vehicle we can use to explore that vast divine pastureland where “the incommunicable” always seems to seek to express itself.
After years in the making, the Vatican has approved a new translation into English of the Roman Missal or Sacramentary – the book of prayers voiced by the priest and the people at Mass. This new Sacramentary will go into effect on the First Sunday of Advent this year (11/27/2011). Several prayers said at Mass will change including the Confiteor, Gloria, Creed and Sanctus. It will take some getting used to.

Not a few people have been wondering why the Church would change the prayers we’ve become so used to reciting for the past forty years. One reason given is the need, according to Pope John Paul II, to offer a closer and more appropriate translation of the original Latin so participants might be more easily drawn into the mysteries they celebrate. Whether the new translation of the ancient prayers will accomplish that noble objective remains to be seen. But it is a good example of the desire to approach that “pasture” where the divine-human encounter takes place. Significantly, part of this endeavor includes a call for less vocal praying and more silence during the Mass, as if to say that mystery might not only be expressed in words but may be even better grasped by other means including silence, which makes us attentive probably because it initially makes us uncomfortable. Just think of the various times in scripture when someone encounters an angel (a euphemism for the divine presence). The angel must always preface his message with the words, Do not be afraid, implying, of course, that the person encountered is experiencing just that.

And maybe that’s the bottom line: true religion, like mystery, makes us uncomfortable. That discomfort, often experienced as fear, is a marker for the presence of the mystery, like a storm brewing on the horizon of that interior pasture. When all that religion can provide is a feeling of comfort, then we can be sure it is ultimately not worth pursuing. Marx was on to something, after all, when he called religion “the opium of the people,” offering the promise of a painless eternity as long as we follow the rules here and now and don’t question the status quo. True religion, the vehicle by which we are invited to explore the mystery of being human, is anything but comfortable – at least on first encounter.

11-02-20: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18 / Psalm 103 / 1 Corinthians 3:16-23 / Matthew 5:38-48
If you were trying to follow the crisis in Egypt a few weeks ago, you might have been a bit confused about the American government’s position vis-à-vis Hosni Mubarak. Was Mubarak America’s friend of three decades, assisting us in maintaining a delicate peace in the Middle East? Or was he a cruel dictator, enemy of democracy and, therefore, our enemy as well? Some say we did right by siding with the masses in their quest for democracy (as if democracy were somehow sacrosanct); others say we threw Mubarak under the bus. The dilemma is reflected in today’s gospel: Jesus talks a lot about treating enemies as neighbors but, as recent events in Egypt prove, we all don’t agree on just who our neighbor is.

Definitions of an enemy are just as illusive. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer, the old adage goes. And then there’s that wise political insight: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The Old Testament knew the complicated nature of relationships, especially within tribal settings like that of ancient Israel. That’s why the law Jesus quotes from the Old Testament in today’s gospel – the Law of Retaliation (Lex Talionis) – is so often misunderstood. While we modern westerners tend to hear it as a harsh and merciless injunction about retaliation, about getting even, its purpose was just the opposite. It was meant to limit vengeance by forbidding unjust or disproportionate retaliation for an injustice incurred. In other words an eye for an eye not an eye for a bruised lip.

With that in mind, the gospel today can be understood as deeply radical, as if Jesus were legislating forgiveness, mercy and love – as if you could, by force of law, command someone to forgive an enemy for a perceived injustice he had committed against you and yours. I’m reminded here of the true story, made public a few decades back in the TV movie, The Scarlet and the Black, starring Gregory Peck as Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty and Christopher Plummer as Nazi Colonel Herbert Kappler.

O’Flaherty is a Vatican diplomat who is responsible for helping thousands of Jews escape Nazi occupied Rome during World War II. He hides them in convents and rectories throughout Rome, while the Nazis, under Colonel Kappler’s authority, are seeking to send them to concentration camps and certain death. Kappler knows what O’Flaherty was doing and he attempts to have him assassinated on several occasions. As the Allies move closer to Rome, Kappler arranges a secret meeting with O’Flaherty where, with not a little chutzpah, the Nazi begs O’Flaherty to help his family escape Rome – much the way O’Flaherty helped Jews escape the Nazis. O’Flaherty is furious and leaves Kappler in a swirl of muffled expletives. After the Allies have retaken Rome, Kappler is arrested, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment; his family, however, has mysteriously vanished. For the next fifteen years Kappler receives only one visitor at regular intervals while he is in prison – Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty. In 1959 O’Flaherty baptizes Kappler a Catholic.

The story highlights the psychological truth that loving your enemy in such a radical way is no wishy-washy endeavor; it requires an act of the will which, I would venture to guess, few of us seem strong enough to summon. It doesn’t mean that you forget the ways in which your enemy has hurt you and those you love – it should never mean that, God forbid. On the contrary, it means acknowledging all the ugliness inherent in such a relationship and making the willful decision to do what is in the best interests of your enemy nonetheless.

Stories like O’Flaherty’s are inspirational but also sobering, bringing to light the cold hard facts that most of us have a hard time doing what’s in the best interests of those we already love on an emotional level, let alone doing good for those we can’t stand. Christ might command us to love our enemies but, even he must know, that most of us must start with very small steps, taking our first cue perhaps from that Old Testament Lex Talionis, realizing that limiting our thirst for vengeance may be the initial step we need to take on that long journey into the mystery where justice and mercy, transformed by love, become indistinguishable.

11-02-13: 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 15:15-20 / Psalm 119 / 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 / Matthew 5:17-37
Today’s gospel brings me back to the 1970s when then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter admitted in a Playboy Magazine interview that he had committed adultery –” in his heart,” as the gospel says - because he had looked on women with lust. Carter went on to win the presidency, proving the point that thinking and doing remain two very different things in the minds of most people. Gary Hart, on the other hand, acted on those same feelings in 1988 and lost his chance for the presidency. And just last year, well-known Miami priest, Father Albert Cutié, was photographed on the beach kissing his girlfriend. After the pictures appeared in the news, he was immediately suspended by his bishop. He has since become an Anglican, married his girlfriend, and become a father. I’m sure Father Cutié was not unique among priests in the desires of his heart; his actions, however, and not his unexpressed desires, are what incurred the drastic consequences.

We’re enticed by scandal. It’s a juicy and complicated thing. Scandal simultaneously produces two reactions in the onlooker: shock and relief. Shock that someone acted on a forbidden desire; relief that that someone wasn’t me. The danger of scandal, though, as the gospel implies today, is that it deludes us into thinking that the desires that led to the act that caused the scandal are somehow so outlandish or perverse that they are not part of our “normal” human experience. The gospel points out that just the opposite is true: those desires are all too human, we all possess them to one degree or another, whether or not we choose to act on them.

Did Jesus, as a human being, experience these feelings and desires as well? Did he know anger? Was he sexually attracted to anyone? Those questions in themselves have caused not a little scandal over time. Jesus fashioned a whip out of rope and chased the merchants from the Temple. Angry, or just making a dramatic point? When Jesus sat and talked with the Samaritan woman at the well (just the two of them), forbidden on a number of levels, you don’t think people talked? Truth is: we’ll never know what Jesus’ unspoken desires were, but we do know that he invited scandal in a manner that trumped both anger and sexuality. Today’s gospel is proof of just that.

Scholars debate whether Jesus really said the words recorded in today’s gospel, but I would suspect he did since they are so radical it’s hard to believe the evangelist would have invented them. Jesus claims he has come to fulfill rather than abolish the law. In this admission he reveals what he was accused of – breaking the law. And, despite revisionist attempts, can anyone who reads the gospels not conclude that Jesus did, in fact, break the law on several occasions - and not only “in his heart.” Of course, we admire the fact that he chose to heal on the Sabbath when the law forbade it; and that he and his disciples did not observe the law regarding ritual washings and the like. But nothing would have scandalized his hearers more than the commission of blasphemy which we witness in today’s gospel. When Jesus announces: “You have heard it said that,” he is actually saying: God told you this, but I tell you… Jesus is taking the place of God Himself. Jesus makes himself into the Divine Lawgiver. In this he is committing blasphemy in the most egregious way imaginable to a first century Jew. Whether you believe Jesus to be God or not is to miss the point, for none of his hearers would have understood Jesus to be God in the way we do. All would have recognized that he was, at the very least, playing with blasphemy; all would have been profoundly scandalized.

Jesus invites scandal. In so doing he robs scandal of its power to persuade us to suppress rather than face our innermost feelings. Admitting that you have uncomfortable or unattractive feelings is the first step in mastering them; denying those feelings only gives them more power. Scandal always tempts us to whitewash the truth, as if that will ever free us from the burden of uncomfortable desires. Sort of like trying to eliminate racism by rewriting Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn without using the “N” word.