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The Challenge of Contemplative Prayer: Escape From Conflict

There is an ancient Zen Koan that reads:

The ultimate path is not difficult.

Simply do not choose.

Our challenge, should we accept it, is simply do not choose.

Thomas Merton wrote: “Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt.” In this post we begin with a simple question. How can we be people of faith in our 21st century world?

Back in 2015 John Shelby Spong, Bishop emeritus of the Episcopal Church, spoke about the courage to “wrestle with the issues of how we can take the Christian faith seriously and still be citizens of the 21st century.”

“We are living is a world where either you give up your religion in order to live in the secular society, or you give up the secular society in order to maintain your religious life.”

“Most of us are aware of this tension. Sometimes it is not conscious but we act out of it in a consistent way. Some people express this tension in their life by refusing to engage the 21st century at all. Ignoring the explosion of knowledge that has gripped western civilization for the last 500 years. They are people hiding from the tensions of today in a hiding place they call religion.”

“We have some other people in our world who are also aware, not always consciously, of this tension between living in the 21st century and being a believing Christian, or a religious person, and they act in a very different way. They act by dismissing the Christianity they think is real as something that is irrelevant to their lives.”

  • John Shelby Spong – July 19, 2015 at Community Christian Church of Springfield, MO

The challenge: Simply do not choose.

John Shelby Spong is a blessing to us all. He speaks in a plain and simple language that every person can easily understand. He also speaks with a frankness that cuts through the clutter of our daily existence.“How can you be a person of faith live in such a world? We hope there is another alternative. We hope there is a way to hold these two things together. It will not be without pain. It will not be without controversy or tension, but I think it can be done.”

Do we have an answer to the question of living faith in our 21st century world? If we say; “yes we have an answer”, then we have chosen. The ultimate path is not difficult we just need to refrain from choosing. Because the ultimate path is not difficult some would believe that means the path is easy. Our human brains desire dual thinking and that path is easy.

As we contemplate on the dual nature thinking of our world, as outlined by Bishop Spong, we pray that this post will open up many questions in the depths of our heart.

May I see in you the presence of Christ.


Homily: Second Sunday of Lent [B]

…not just as another preacher, but rather as the next step in the history of the Jewish people—truly, the successor, or even fulfillment of the law, represented by Moses, and of the prophets, represented by Elijah.
Rev. Samuel J. Smith

The readings for the Second Sunday of Lent cycle B (Mark 9:2-10) can be found here.

The Transfiguration story brings to mind different things for different people. For scripture scholars the Transfiguration ends Jesus’ Galilean ministry and begins His journey to Jerusalem. The scripture scholars also note that form criticism identifies that the Transfiguration story was written to be used in the liturgy of the synagogue, specifically for the Jewish Festival of Lights. Jesus is the new Temple and the light is a reminder of the cleansing and return of the light that dispelled the darkness of the Temple in Jerusalem. The disciples of Jesus came to this understanding and Mark built it into the story of the Transfiguration.

I like to think about the “aha” moment when the realization, recognition, and comprehension of Jesus reached a new understanding among His most devoted followers.

This Sunday we are asked to focus on our growth in faith. We are asked to remember the “aha” moments in our faith life.

Think about that time we had our first realization and understanding of Jesus. Think about those feelings and how the disciples of Jesus felt when they reached the moment of the Transfiguration.

To help us reflect on our faith the Rev. Dawn Hutchings has provided a setting. She explains that the “transfiguration of Jesus includes all the elements of a perfect love story. Jesus and his best buddies travel up to the top of a mountain, just like ever other hero of the day, travelled up to the top of a mountain, and when he got there, they had such a great time, it was amazing… Jesus was the one they’d been waiting for all their lives, Jesus was the one who could lead them, and just like the leaders of old, just like Moses and Elijah before him, Jesus had what it takes to move them out of the hell they found themselves in… Let’s pitch a tent and just stay here.”

However, our faith must continue to grow. We can’t be expected to remain in one place forever. The deeper we delve into our faith the richer our experience. The Rev. Dawn Hutchings puts it best when she says that “even though it sounds appealing to stay up there on the mountaintop with Jesus, frozen in time, just the way he was when we first met, there is so much more to the Christ experience…”

This is a time in our Lenten journey to deepen our understanding of Jesus’ message. We need to ask ourselves where is Jesus leading us? As our faith grows we become better at understanding the words of Jesus and better at translating those words to the community around us.

If you take one thing away from this homily it should be that as we remember Jesus and His teachings it is helpful to recall how it all began for the disciples and for us. Those feelings bring back strong emotions and during Lent we can rededicate our faith to living the words of Jesus.

I pray that our shared faith experience will lead to building the kingdom of heaven on Earth.

God bless,

Homily: First Sunday of Lent [B]

The kingdom of God is for the earth. The Lord’s Prayer speaks of God’s kingdom coming on earth, even as it already exists in heaven. It is about the transformation of this world
Marcus Borg

The readings for the First Sunday of Lent cycle B (Mark 1:12-15) can be found here.

The scripture scholar will tell you that Mark was the first Gospel written. As such, many stories are short and to the point. Matthew and Luke had Mark in front of them and were able to build on and elaborate those stories. For example, in the Gospel for this Sunday there is only a brief mention of the temptation in the wilderness, which does not include any details.

The Marcan community would not have needed many details because they would have been familiar with many Hebrew scripture stories of prophets and their 40 days and nights of trials and tribulations. The mere mention would have brought to mind stories of Moses and Elijah.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
Exodus 34:27-28

And the angel of the Lord came again a second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you.” And [Eli′jah] arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
1 Kings 19:7-8

John Shelby Spong explains that “increasingly the early Christians saw in the Hebrew scriptures the anticipation of the messiah’s life and when they became convinced that Jesus was the expected messiah, they began to interpret these scriptures as anticipatory of their day and of Jesus’ messiahship.”

In this Sunday reading Jesus says the kingdom of God has drawn near. This message is vital for our salvation. Many sermons will likely be centered upon these words of Jesus. The focus will be on the end times, but completely miss what the nearness of kingdom of God means.

Depending on the traditionalist leanings of our parish we are likely to hear sermons about death, judgement, heaven and hell. More time will be spent explaining how to prepare ourselves in this life for the next life. That preparation in this life is meant to help us purify our souls and to break us free from our connection and affection to this world. Does this sound familiar?

The Gospel message of Jesus, this Sunday, is to prepare ourselves in this life to transform our world here and now.

Here are a few phrases I pray we all heard in our Lenten worship this Sunday:

“To fulfill the Father’s will, Christ ushered in the Kingdom of heaven on earth.” CCC 763

“To welcome Jesus’ word is to welcome ‘the Kingdom itself.'” CCC 764

“The Lord Jesus endowed his community with a structure that will remain until the Kingdom is fully achieved.” CCC 765

Christopher Morse, of Union Theological Seminary in New York, tells us that “what the church, or what the majority conventional view of heaven is, is very different from what we find in these biblical testimonies. The end times are not the end of the world — they are the beginning of the real world — in biblical understanding.”

And so it’s not a Platonic, timeless eternity, which is what we were all taught. It is very definitely that there will come a time when God will utterly transform this world — that will be the age to come.
N.T. Wright

We are God’s representatives, and if God will transform this world it will be through us. If you take one thing away from this homily it should be that we are asked to create heaven on Earth. Jesus showed us the way and if we welcome His words we welcome the kingdom.

During this time of Lent we should prepare ourselves by reading the words of Jesus. We should dedicate ourselves to living the teachings of Jesus. At Easter will take a step closer to transforming our world.

The kingdom is at hand.

God bless,

Homily: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

… join the leper at Jesus’ feet and pray, “If you will, you can make me clean.”
Lamar Williamson (Mark) p. 62

The readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time cycle B (mark 1:40-45) can be found here.

The Biblical historian will explain that leprosy is a sign of the wrath of God. If you were stricken with the skin disorder it was clearly a sign that God was punishing you.

One story that clearly illustrates this comes from 2 Chronicles 26:16-21 where we meet king Uzzi′ah. He was prideful, false before God and his anger led to his inevitable destruction. The king contracted leprosy and “they thrust him out quickly, and he himself hastened to go out, because the Lord had smitten him.” Uzzi′ah died an outcast due to his leprosy. Cursed by God, lepers were the lowest people in the Jewish society.

In our Gospel this Sunday Jesus heals a leper by touching him.

The scripture scholar will tell you that Leviticus outlined the rituals and sacrifice needed for a leper to enter back into society. Until these requirements have been met a leper was not allowed to be seen in the midst of the people, let alone touched.

The 1st century Jewish attitude toward leprosy is something all scholars agree on, but the emotional response of Mark’s Jesus continues to spark lively debates. I would be remiss if we did not speak to this scholarly debate in the homily.

The actual words (in Greek) used to describe the emotions of Jesus vary depending on the manuscript. Most manuscripts use the word pity to describe the emotional response of Jesus. A few manuscripts, however, use the word anger to describe Jesus’ response.

The USCCB online text of our Gospel reading represent the general understanding that Jesus is moved by “pity” and cures the leper. The alternative “anger” is likely the authentic word used by Mark, so it deserves to be explored.

The best explanation I have found comes from F. Scott Spencer in his book Horizons in Biblical Theology, Volume 36, Issue 2, pages 107 – 128

A close analysis of Mark 1:40-45, in conjunction with key Markan co-texts (6:14-29; 10:35-52; 14:32-36; 15:6-15) and ancient and modern theories of emotion, demonstrates that the leper chiefly provokes Jesus’ ire by belittling his deep desire or will to heal (ἐὰν θέλῃς).

Once Jesus heals the leper He summarily dismisses the man by showing him the door. Alan Goertemiller puts it this way: “There! Show them that healing comes from a loving touch, and not punishment and demanding ritual!”

What are we to think of an angry and dismissive Jesus? Rabbi Dr. Earl A. Grollman explains that he “was taught as a child, angry thoughts make bad people. Wrong. Angry thoughts make very human people.”

Jesus was human, after all, and we should learn a lesson of compassion from these Gospel verses. Jesus touched and healed a leper. He may have responded in anger, but He also responded with compassion.

It may have been bad form for the leper to question Jesus’ will to heal, but that didn’t stop Jesus from touching the man and healing him.

God heals, but we may often be the essential intermediaries through whom God’s will is accomplished, whether that means a curing of the body or a healing of the spirit, whether we are medical practitioners, chaplains, or loved ones. This means that each of us has a responsibility as well as a response-ability.
Christina M. Puchalski (A Time for Listening and Caring) p. 209

In the Jewish community healing has two components; physical healing and spiritual healing. Jesus cured the leprosy and the physical health was restored, but Jesus also knew to send the man to the temple to perform the sacrificial examination and rites to enter back into the Jewish society so that the spiritual health could be restored.

As Church we have an obligation to be a conduit of compassion for Jesus to our society. If you take one thing away from this homily it should be to remember that there will be times when we get angry but we cannot forget to be compassionate. In our compassion we must also remember to heal the person both physically and spiritually.

Who pushes your buttons? Who gets on your last nerve? Who should we touch and heal?

If it were easy anybody could do it, but it is hard so we will leave it to those who folow Jesus.

God bless,

Homily: Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

“In communion with Him and with one another, let us discover once again where and for whom the Lord is calling us today to serve in His name.”
Sr. Mary Sujita (9th Superior General of the Sisters of Notre Dame)

The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time cycle B (Mark 1:29-39) can be found here.

The scripture scholars understand the healings and exorcisms written in the Gospels through the discipline of “Form Criticism.” Scholars will tell you that the formulaic structures of these stories indicate use in liturgical settings, such as synagogue worship services. These stories of healing and exorcism fit well with the Jewish feast of Yom Kippur, and perhaps they were written and used for just this purpose.

Mark Allan Powell tells us in his book Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee that “the healings and exorcisms were experienced as an incursion of otherworldly power. Historically, we must acknowledge that Jesus presented himself as a person through whom such power could and did operate, and that those around him experienced him as a channel of such power. The fact that the power was said to operate for healing is also significant, for it indicates what sort of spirit person Jesus was.”

What sort of spirit people are we?

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us.
Mark 9:38-40

In the healing traditions of the Catholic Church we have something called Extreme Unction. The words may sound strange to you, but you know them by another name; Last Rites, or Anointing of the Sick.

Richard Rohr called Extreme Unction a “sin management system” because we tended to use the anointing as the last chance to get things right with God. Healing does not have to be a last ditch effort. We are called to heal and in the process transform ourselves and our communities.

Extreme Unction may be as close as we get to experiencing the healing touch of Jesus, and it is sad that it only comes at the end of our lives.

Megan McKenna, in her book Tasting the Word of God: Commentaries on the daily lectionaries, tells us that “the disciples have seen Jesus heal, and now they are sent out to the villages with the authority to heal and cast out any spirit that hinders people from living as the children of God, imitating his own work.”

Megan also reminds us that “as believers, this is our work, our calling together – some for a lifetime, others for a time of apprenticeship and learning, others to encourage and sustain those on the road for the Lord.”

So, this is our work as believers, and if we are going to imitate Jesus and heal people, we are going to get our hands dirty. This is not something we can add to a list of prayer intentions or names of people we pray for during hourly adoration. No, if we are going to imitate Jesus we need to recognize those people in our lives that need healing and offer the compassion of Jesus.

Another item to note; Jesus did not heal only those who were Jews. There was no litmus test for people to be deserving of healing. Jesus didn’t even require people to believe in God before they were healed. If we are going to imitate Jesus we are called to heal Atheists as well as Christians.

A man asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the entire Torah, the five books of Moses, while standing on one foot. And Hillel did.

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That’s the whole Torah, he said. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.
Modern Lessons From Hillel

If you ask, how do I heal those around me, the answer begins with compassion. We need to eliminate our emphasis on being right and replace it with compassion for others.

If you take one thing from this homily it should be to search your heart and ask yourself what is painful to you, then never bring that pain to somebody else. That is the sort of spirit people we are called to be.

It will not be easy because we have created lepers and outcasts in our society and we are encouraged to treat those people with injustice, inequality and lack of respect. Some of our religious leaders have institutionalized injustice, inequality and lack of respect, but we can always turn to Jesus for our example.

I pray that when you hear words of violence, hatred, or disdain for others that you will remember instead those stories of Jesus healing the sick and respond with compassion.

God bless,

Homily: The Epiphany of the Lord [B]

The traditional biblical eye-openers on God are the Star of Bethlehem, leading the Wise Men to worship Jesus… But what is it our eyes are opened to see? The Wise men are gentiles, so God’s revelation is for all people.
Brian Mountford “University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford”

The readings for The Epiphany of the Lord cycle B (Matthew 2:1-12) can be found here.

The Near East Babylonian religions believed that there was a connection between observable phenomenon of heavenly bodies and events on Earth. This is commonly referred to as astral determinism or astral fatalism.

The practitioners of astral determinism believed that events were destined to occur and only required to be interpreted properly. When Matthew’s Gospel was written this religious practice was still being observed.

The magi in the Gospel story represented practitioners of astral determinism. The magi interpreted the Bethlehem star to portend the birth of a king. There was one key piece of the interpretive puzzle missing. To solve this they needed Jewish scripture.

May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!
Psalm 72:10-11

A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Mid′ian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Isaiah 60:6

But you, O Bethlehem Eph′rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
Micah 5:2

The scripture scholar will tell you that Matthew did not tell us how many magi came from the east. There may have been 2 or 22, but the number really does not matter. As a child I would have liked to have seen more magi in the crèche at our home, because I liked to rearrange the figures.

What does matter is the magi were not Jewish and had seen the signs. They followed the star seeking the king. They needed the help of the Jewish scriptures to understand how to interpret the signs so they could find Him, worship and pay homage. The magi represent the gentile members of the Matthean community seeking Christ.

This was to show that the message of Jesus was meant for all people, not just the Jewish people.

We know, from the story in Matthew, that the Herodians, Pharisees, and scribes had not seen the signs but did review the scriptures and interpreted the signs to mean a new king was born in Bethlehem. They made the conscious decision not to accompany the magi to worship and pay homage to the new king. These Jewish groups represent the synagogue leaders who were kicking Matthew’s community out of the synagogue.

The synagogue leaders were Jewish people who had heard the message of Jesus but were unwilling to accept this message. Christianity threatened their traditions and Matthew’s community were no longer welcome.

Unlike the the crèche, with the baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by sheep and oxen, Matthew tells us that Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem in a standard dwelling that we will call their house. The house represents the church where Christians gather to worship.

In the houses of Matthew’s community all who seek Jesus were invited in to worship as part of the Christian community, just as Mary and Joseph invited in the magi.

Once we understand the symbolism of the story the message becomes clear.

Jesus’ message is universal and not for a select group. Those groups who were traditionally considered outsiders only need to seek Jesus and are welcomed to worship with the Christian community.

Those stiff-necked groups who are fearful of change, hold tight to their traditions at any cost, and feel that outsiders have nothing to contribute will miss out on the redemptive power of Jesus.

Ancient stories are great, but how is the story of the magi reflected in our lives today?

Think about the story this way. Is there a group of people considered to be outsiders, with nothing to contribute, who are asking to worship Jesus in our Christian communities? I bet we all know groups like this.

Perhaps we open our doors to these groups, like the Holy Family did for the magi?

Perhaps we stubbornly hold to our traditions, fear change and turn our noses up on these groups, like the Herodians, Pharisees and scribes?

The teaching of Jesus is clear regarding how we should treat others.

In terms of gender, the magi find Mary in the house, named and at the center of the scene. So too, implies the story, visited by the liberating wisdom of Christ, the church should realign old patriarchal patterns of relationship that marginalize women and move to partnership in the following of Christ.
Elizabeth A. Johnson “Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints” p. 242

If you take one thing away from this homily it should be that there is no group asking to be allowed to worship Jesus that could be further outside orthodox belief than the magi. Yet, they were permitted to pay homage. We must strive to emulate this in our communities.

Every person has gifts that can be shared within the believing community and we represent Christ if we embrace them with love. In this way we represent Christ to the world.

The star is overhead and the magi are ready to lead us to Jesus. All we have to do is journey with them.

Come, let us go to Bethlehem, that we may worship the king.
R. Alan Culpepper “Advent Through Transfiguration, Year A, Volume 9”

God bless,

Homily: The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph [B]

How lovely, how tender, the way aged Simeon, the frailties of his years draped over him, cradles the infant Jesus in his arms. Imagine holding in your arms this most wanted child, the hope of the ages, the yearning of your entire life.
James C Howell

The readings for The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:22-40) cycle B can be found here.

Anybody familiar with the Liturgy of the Hours will likely have heard the words of Simeon. Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum, in pace. Lord, let your servant go in peace, as you promised.

The Nunc Dimittis is said at night prayer, usually vespers or compline, and is derived from the Gospel reading used this Sunday.

Aside from that bit of trivia, the scripture scholar will tell you that the witness of Simeon and Anna marked Jesus as the new Temple. To understand this better we need to understand what the Temple meant to the people in Jesus’ day.

Heerak Christian Kim tells us that “during the Hasmonean period, it was priestly individuals who assumed royal powers, not the Davidic line. …where to be priestly was essential to rise to power… The Jerusalem Temple was the source of power and authority. The Jerusalem Temple is what granted individual and corporate salvation on the religious level. The Jerusalem Temple was too sacred and too central to the experience of the Jewish people to be ignored or opposed.”

Simeon and Anna represented the Temple cult and God’s people who were waiting for the the Messiah. By the time Luke wrote the Gospel the Jerusalem Temple had already been destroyed by the Romans. Jesus was recognized by the Lucan community as the new Temple where salvation was granted. The witness of Simeon and Anna gives meaning to the redemptive power of Jesus.

The witness of Simeon and Anna also provides a model for our witness today. Helmut Flender explains that “Luke expresses by this arrangement that man and woman stand together and side by side before God. They are equal in honour and grace, they are endowed with the same gifts and have the same responsibilities.” We are all called to share in this witness.

Simeon and Anna recognized that the unfolding events meant that the wait was over. With Jesus, came the kingdom.

Today, our witness to the redemptive power of Jesus, the new Temple, includes God’s kingdom here and now. This is our responsibility as Christians.

Christianity is not simply a doctrine: it is an encounter in faith with God made present in our history through the incarnation of Jesus. Try by every means to make this encounter possible, and look towards Jesus who is passionately seeking you. Seek him with the eyes of the flesh through the events of life and in the faces of others; but seek him too with the eyes of the soul through prayer and meditation on the Word of God…

Saint Pope John Paul II “Message of the Holy Father John Paul II to the youth of the world on the occasion of the XIX World Youth Day 2004”

If you take one thing away from this homily it should be that we are all called to witness to God’s salvation in Jesus. This salvation is meant for everybody, not a select few, as God’s promise is for all.

Jewish understanding of salvation was limited to obedience to the law. Our understanding of salvation is to seek Jesus and bear witness in the events of our lives and the people we meet.

“Living fully, loving wastefully and being all that we can be” is my definition of seeing the presence of God in human life.
John Shelby Spong

My all time favorite explanation for witnessing to Jesus comes from Bishop John Shelby Spong.

If we can all strive for this type of witness, God’s kingdom will come.

God bless,