Today I Must Stay at Your House

Today’s Gospel from Luke is one that I love:  Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. We all remember the story:

Here is Zacchaeus – a short man who can’t even see above the crowds. He is unpopular, not what we think of as a good person. This is not someone who is on the guest list of most people’s dinner parties. Most people want nothing to do with him. Those who don’t think him vile simply view him as unimportant. So Zacchaeus is perched up in a tree trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

Jesus sees Zacchaeus up there and calls out, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”  What Jesus really says is: My dear, dear Zacchaeus, it doesn’t matter to me that you are a tax collector and that you are unpopular. I still want to be with you. I want to be your friend.  Indeed, I must be your friend.

And what impact do Jesus’ words have on Zacchaeus?  Zacchaeus practically bounds out of the tree with joy and promises to give half of his possessions to the poor and make recompense to all he has cheated.

Jesus didn’t wait for Zacchaeus to do some good things before approaching him. Rather he shows love to Zacchaeus first, and the recognition of that love leads to Zacchaeus’ response.

God loves us first.  That is a truth we must grasp.  God’s love doesn’t depend on what we do or don’t do.  God’s love is first and always.

It is grasping that fundamental truth that changes everything.

Have We Learned Nothing?

My friend Dianne Schlichting often uses poetry as a means of both processing and expressing her experience.  Here is a poem she shared this morning to express her anguish at what she has been seeing in the media and in our society these past months.  With her permission, I gratefully offer it here for your reflection.

Crucify! Crucify!

What kind of people
Are we becoming?
What is it about us
That we are drawn
To the crucifixions of others
Whose sins are sensationalized,
Magnified daily in our media, social outlets,
And in our conversations?

We have become mobs,
Bloodhounds seeking
Our next meal, seeking the next
Delicious piece of red meat.

Why do we so enjoy,
Watching public humiliations,
Suffering, ridicule, and others’
Pain on display?

Why do we continue to shout,
“Give us Barabbas, and
Crucify, crucify the other!”

We have become consumers of
Other people’s painful journeys into transformation;
We forget that we are all sinners, that
We all fall short.

Pharisees, we attend our churches
Praying, “Thank you, God, that I am
Not like that sinner.”
We point fingers, judge, and
Become the other’s jury and executioners;
We act out of hate and vengeance—why?

Who has wronged us to such a degree that we feel the need to crucify?
We are disappointed and angry, but
Why do we point fingers outward?
Have we personally worked
At creating places of harmony,
Understanding, consensus, and
Love?
Do we try to be compassionate human beings,
Or do we allow our feelings to erect walls of separation?

Crowds followed Jesus to His death
Jeering, screaming for blood.
Have we learned nothing in all these years—
We who call ourselves Christians—
Have we not understood His message
Of forgiveness, hope, and love?
Do we not know who we are or
Who we are called to be?

The ultimate question we need to answer:
Are we people who crucify or
Are we people who sit together at Eucharist?
That is the choice before us today.

Sacramental Principle

We began our University of St. Thomas Center for Ministry staff meeting yesterday by watching a video clip of Michael Himes talking about sacramentality as a (rather, the) central Catholic principle that, among other things, undergirds the efforts of Catholic universities to educate their students.

Himes suggests that the sacramental principle the heart of the Catholic understanding of the Christian traditions.  He explains the sacramental principle in this way:

If something is always and everywhere the case, it must be noticed, accepted and celebrated somewhere sometimes.  What is always true must be noticed as true at a particular time and in a particular place.  Thus in creation, all of which is grounded in grace, those points – persons, things, places, events actions – which cause us to notice the presence of grace are what we speak of as sacraments.  What can be sacramental?  Anything?  How many sacraments are there?  As many as there are things in existence in the universe.

Those of us formed by an Ignatian spirituality often talk about finding God in all things. And that is what Himes is getting at – the idea that if we truly behold what is really there  – that is, of we see and more fully what really is rather than as we expect, hope, fear or desire – what we will find is the infinite presence and power of grace.

 

A Change of Heart

There have been several media references to Pope Francis’ departure from his prepared text to share an anecdote during his general audience yesterday.  For anyone who missed it, it seemed worth sharing.

The Pope told this story of an elderly woman who helped an immigrant:

As the lady came across this young man, who was without shoes, they began to speak and she asked him, “What are you searching for?”

“Saint Peter’s to go through the Holy Door,” he responded to her question.

Moved with sympathy, she thought to herself: “But how can he walk? .. He doesn’t even have shoes. She insisted on offering a taxi to bring him. When the taxi driver stopped however, he was hesitant to accept the passenger, as he smelled very badly.

However, the driver agreed, as the immigrant and the lady got in and chatted on the way to the Vatican. They spoke about his history, what he has lived through, the trials, the war, etc.

By the end of the ride, the lady went to pay, and the driver, who hesitated to accept them, said: “No, Signora. It is I who must pay for you, because you made me listen to a story that changed my heart.”

It seems to me that the question implied by the Pope’s story is this: How open is my heart to being changed by the stories I hear?

Detachment as Greater Attachment

I was re-reading some excerpts from the writings of Henri Nouwen and came across some thoughts of his on Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man.  Nouwen (in Sabbatical Journey) writes

 

The story does not imply a huge leap from everything to nothing, but rather a long series of small steps in the direction of love. The tragedy for the rich young man was not that he was unwilling to give up his wealth – who would be? The real tragedy for him was that he missed something both he and Jesus desired, which was he opportunity to develop a deep and intimate relationship. It is not so much a question of detachment as it is a question of fully trusting and following the voice of love. Detachment is only a consequence of a greater attachment. Who would worry about his few possessions when invited to be intimate with the lord of abundance, who offers more fish than we can catch and more bread than we can eat?

I love Nouwen’s phrasing.  When we talk about “detachment” our focus is often on what we must give up.  But if we think of detachment standing alone, it IS hard.  We can too readily think of it as a matter of will, forcing ourselves to give something up.

But detachment as a consequence of attachment has a different feel.  The deepening of our relationship makes the detachment from those things that impede our living our of our relationship with God a much more natural process.

And that puts the emphasis deepening our relationship with Christ, on “fully trusting and following the voice of love.”

The Kingdom of God and Yeast

Jesus tried in many ways to help his followers understand what he meant when he talked about the Kingdom of God.  In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus provides two images, the second one being that the Kingdom of God is “like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch of dough was leavened.”

Talking about Jesus’ efforts to explain the kingdom, Louis Savary writes

Some of Jesus’ images for the kingdom emphasize things that grow an develop organically, like a bush emerging from a seed, or yeast gradually permeating all the elements of the bread dough. Neither of these images implies a numerical growth but rather emphasizes a kind of organic development or an evolving process.

The  process thought resonates with me.  Yeast has to do its thing for the bread to rise.  It is not enough for it to simply be spread throughout the dough, it needs time to work and the dough is not the same from one minute to the next.

But that still leaves some questions unanswered.  Who is the woman?  Who is the yeast?  Perhaps Jesus is the starter years and we are the rest of the yeast?  Is God then the women?  If so, one suggestion is that whatever the Kingdom is, God does not do it all on his own, but relies on us.

The other thing that always strikes my attention in this image is three measure of flour.  I had always imagined that as three cups of flour, until I read that three measures is about two gallons of flour.  As anyone who bakes bread knows, two gallons would make a lot of loaves of bread!  One commentator I read suggests that Old Testament references to that amount would have made Jesus’ audience think of hospitality. That amount would represent service and devotion to others.  Or does it simply convey the enormity of God’s plan?

Perhaps you have some other questions of thoughts when you hear these words of Jesus.’

I may not be able to explain it satisfactorily, but because I bake bread, there is excitement about Kingdom in this parable for me.  What I hear God say at that is:  Your excitement at that is nothing compared to my excitement about the Kingdom!

I Don’t Have To Do It All

It can be very exhausting to feel like the entire weight of the world is on your shoulders, to feel that it is somehow your job to fix enormous problems on your own.  True, we don’t phrase it that way, but it is easy to feel like we can’t let up our efforts, and have to work past the level of our capacity because there is so much to be done.

Although seductive – because it makes us think of ourselves as committed, dedicated people – such behavior really is a form of “functional atheism.”

In his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer describes functional atheism as

the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us.  This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.

Parker talks about this in the context of talking about leadership and community, suggesting that if we are made for community (a basic truth in Catholic thought), then each member of the community must be both a leader and a follower.  More importantly, regarding our sense that the fate of the whole world rests on us, he reminds us that “[c]ommunity cuts both ways: when we reach the limits of our own capacity to love, community means trusting that someone else will be available to the person in need.”

It is an important lesson.  As Palmer writes

The gift we receive on the inner journey is the knowledge that ours is not the only act in town.  Not only are there other acts out there, but some of them are even better than ours, at least occasionally!  We learn that we need not carry the whole load but can share it with others liberating and empowering them.  We learn that sometimes we are free to lay the load down altogether.  The great community asks us to do only what we are able and to trust the rest to other hands.

It is good to examine our own behavior and ask whether a bit of functional atheism is lurking beneath the surface.  I’m not decrying hard work, but a lack of trust – in God and in other members of our communities.

Sukkot and Impermanence

Our Jewish brothers and sisters are currently celebrating the feast of Sukkot. During this seven-day festival, Jews eat their meals in temporarily erected huts. These flimsy structures generally have a semi-see through roof that is built from something that grows in the ground.

Sukkot is a reminder to the Jewish people of their life in the desert – of a time when they had  no permanent place to live, no place to call home from one day to the next.

Sukkot is, more generally, a reminder of the impermanent nature of all things. One rabbi had this to say about the festival of Sukkot:

At its heart, Sukkot is a time to recognize our impermanence, to celebrate together, and to reach into our own souls to find new meaning and new riches…. [All of the joy and celebration takes] place in the flimsiest, most vulnerable of structures, ..and you can see just how susceptible a Sukkah is to the weather…[O]ur holiday calls us to surround ourselves in impermanence—to allow ourselves to be vulnerable—and then to celebrate to our heart’s content.

If we are spiritual people, then whatever our religion is, we are conscious that we are defined by more than our human existence. Indeed this current human existence of ours is a blip in the totality of life eternal. As my friend Joe Costantino once observed in one or our conversations, we are temporary visitors to this planet.

We, of course, don’t tend to behave as temporary visitors – our every day reality is that this is our life; it is, after all, (except for those who claim to have actually memories of past lives) the only life we know. But it is a short and temporary blip nonetheless.

Sukkot serves as an importnat reminder that t all things in this world are transitory. And that transitoriness implies a view about our relationship to the world, one that is captured in the idea of renunciation.

Renunciation is a term that is easily misunderstood. We hear the word and we cringe, thinking it means we are not allowed to have things, or at least that we are not supposed to enjoy them. But renunciation is not about not enjoying what we have. Rather it is about understanding the transitory nature of worldly pleasure and understanding that there is something more needed to satisfy us – that, ultimately, to be truly happy, we need to turn from materialism to a life of spirit. And that is something that requires an intentional process of transformation.

Feast of St. Luke

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Luke, author of both one of the four Gospels and of the Acts of the Apostles.

Both books have been favorites of mine.  I love Luke’s Gospel both for its beginning and its end. Only Luke’s Gospel contains the episodes of the Annunciation and the Visitation, both of which have been powerful passages in my prayer experience. And only Luke has the resurrected Jesus meeting the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, a passage that has always been close to my heart.  And in the Easter season, praying with Luke’s account of the growth and development of the early Church following Jesus’ ascension is a moving experience.

Doubtless part of my attraction to Luke also stems from his emphasis on the poor and the marginalized. More so than the other evangelists, Luke portrays Jesus’ openness toward everyone that needed his attention, regardless of who they were, regardless of how they were despised by others. He emphasizes Jesus concern for the poor, for widows, for lepers, for victims of prejudice.

Luke’s Gospel carries a twofold message. First, that all are welcomed by Jesus, regardless of who they are and how little they have. Second, that we have an obligation to be sensitive to the needs of the poor and marginalized, to act toward them as Jesus did – to love them and to be generous in providing for their needs.  That same theme is carried in Acts, where, among other things, that 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.”

The lessons of Luke’s writing are timeless and ones we would do well to take to heart in our times.

Women of the Bible: Mary and Elizabeth

Today was the fifth and final session of the Fall Reflection Series that Jennifer Wright and I have been co-facilitating at the University of St. Thomas (on the Minneapolis campus) this year.  The theme for this five week series was Women of the Bible.

In the earlier sessions of the series, we reflected on Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, Ruth and Naomi, as well as some lesser-known women of the Hebrew Scriptures.  (If you are interested, scroll back through prior posts to check out the podcasts from those earlier sessions.) We ended our program today with Mary and Elizabeth.

In her talk, Jennifer offered some reflections about each of Elizabeth and Mary individually, and then about their relationship with each other. Near the end of her talk, she brought us back full circle to our first session by comparing what we see in the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth with what we saw in the relationship of Sarah and Hagar.

Jennifer also distributed a handout containing a contemporary translation of the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel.  She made the observation that we know some of these stories so well that it is easy for us to gloss over them.  She expressed the hope that a new translation of the episodes might help us reflect on the passages with new eyes.

After Jennifer’s talk we spent some time talking about the participants’ thoughts about Mary and Elizabeth and then gave folks a chance to share about some of the other wonderful women of the bible we did not cover in this series.  Perhaps we’ll have to start planning Women of the Bible, Part II!

You can access a recording of the Jennifer’s reflection here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 25:26.)  You can find a copy of the prayer materials we distributed to participants here.