Monday, August 24, 2020

We are unfinished, loved

To want to serve God in some conditions and not others is to serve Him in your own way…Open yourself to God without measure. Let His life flow through you like a torrent. Fear nothing on the road you are walking. God will lead you by the hand. Let your love for Him cast out the fear you feel for yourself. The Seeking Heart, F. Fenelon 

Epistle Romans 12:1-8
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. 

Gospel Matthew 16: 13-20 
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 

He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. 

Therefore, whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe. St. Anthony 

Today’s readings are a wonderful encouragement that we are capable of living for God, just as we are, regardless of our condition. I am invited to consider anew what gifts God has given me, starting with the gift of life in body and mind. Offering myself to God as I am, with my gifts and vulnerabilities is a process. The “renewing” of my mind- my attitude toward myself, others, and God, is a life-long work. 

When Peter declares Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus then tells Simon his new name: Peter (rock). Rocks are hard and rough and sharp. Jesus commissions Peter and the church to prevail against the gates of Hades. Think here of an army scaling the walls to a city, breaking open the gate so all captives held by sin and death can be free. The keys of God’s kingdom is the ministry of binding evil and loosing God’s rule. This work on earth is backed up by God in heaven. 

It’s interesting and most encouraging that Jesus accepts Peter’s declaration, knowing that Peter says so in faith. Jesus accepts Peter as he is and where he is. Peter didn’t wait for the right moment, until he had every question answered. Peter had much to learn about the Christ who will suffer and die on the cross. Just read the next verses in Matthew 16. In essence, Jesus is saying to me and you, “You’re rough and hard and sharp, but I can work with you. I see in you more potential than you can imagine.” As I dedicate myself to use my God-given gifts for the good of others, the good coming from it will far exceed any of my expectations. Yes, God can do more than we could ever ask or think.

Friday, August 14, 2020

On Faith and Doubt

Gospel Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ 

You are constantly facing choices. The question is whether you choose for God or for your doubting self. You know what the right choice is, but your emotions, passions, and feelings keep suggesting you choose the self-rejecting way… Remember, you are held safe. You are loved. You are protected. You are in communion with God and those whom God has sent you. What is of God will last. It belongs to the eternal. Choose it, and it will be yours.
 “Keep Choosing God,” Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love

I can choose to trust in God, even on the difficult days. To me, faith is not a possession for all time. I believe God gives me enough faith for the next day. I also observe that I construct barriers to trusting God more fully. My blocks to deeper faith are certainty, safety, security, comfort and convenience. There are others, like popularity. Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk and contemplative, called these blocks “programs for happiness.” What are your programs for happiness?

In our Gospel reading from Matthew 14, it’s helpful to give Peter his due. Peter does not exhibit total lack of faith. In fact, he shows more trust and love for Jesus than the other disciples who stay in the boat. Peter indeed gets out of the boat, at Jesus’ command. Everyone else is grasping the gunnels for dear life.

Later in Matthew and again, Peter is the only one of the twelve who follows Jesus all the way to Jesus’ questioning before Caiaphas. Should we appreciate Peter for his faith, or fault him for not being perfect? When Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith,” is Jesus shaming Peter for his doubt, or is Jesus encouraging Peter’s potential to trust more? If we never get out the boat, we do not learn a deeper trust in God. At the same time, just because we have some faith doesn’t mean that we will never need to ask for help. We can turn to Jesus amidst the threatening waves.

Like the disciples in the boat, Christian disciples and spiritual followers have always and forever will encounter tests of faith, challenges to what is familiar to us, and gut- checks that only happen after we get out of the boat. If I choose to have faith in the living Christ, who knows? A whole new world may open up before me. But if I never get out the boat, I 'll never know.

Gospel Reflection: Matthew 15: 21-28

Then Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

The Gospel story is the only mention of “Canaanite” in the New Testament. The woman’s identity as a Canaanite reminds readers of ancient Israel’s role in displacing the Canaanites from their land (Joshua- Judges). According to the biblical narrative in Joshua, Israel was directed by Moses to take Canaanite land and livestock, but chase down the fleeing Canaanites and kill them. Judges notes that Israel was unsuccessful in driving out the Canaanites entirely. Most surviving Canaanite people were taken into slavery. Sidon is mentioned in Judges 1:31-32 as one of few settlements where the inhabitants were neither conquered nor subject to forced labor. 

When she initially calls out to the Lord, “have mercy…my daughter is tormented by a demon,” the disciples turn and ask Jesus to send her away, to dismiss her- she was a woman and foreigner. This reaction would have been typical, given the racial, and cultural hatred between these two Semitic groups.  She bypasses the disciples, kneels at Jesus’ feet, and pleads, “help me.” She will do what’s necessary to be heard. The demon from which the daughter is tormented could have been psychosomatic. Terrifying events in the past are often submerged from conscious memory- but stored in the body. The effects of trauma sustained through familial and community violence can be passed on to successive generations. Perhaps that is part of the message in this story: that in the daughter's healing, generational curses can be healed in Jesus Christ.

The brief interchange between Jesus and the woman seems like banter between a teacher and a disciple. The master asks a tough question and the star pupil’s retort earns the respect of the teacher. Jesus sees in her a remarkable trust in God. “Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” “The prayer of faith will heal the sick,” James 5:15 reminds us.

This encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite is uncommon. The woman is the exemplar in the story (not the disciples, again). In advocating for her daughter, the power differentials (gender, race, geography) that would have marginalized the Canaanite woman are themselves judged. Not among the "lost sheep of Israel" and living in a non-Jewish area, she is the exception in Jesus’ ministry in Matthew. Finally, she shows herself up to the task, speaking faith where there was complete dismissal. 

References to this story appear in the traditional “Prayer of Humble Access,” said before receiving Holy Communion: “We are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs under thy table.” However, as the story unfolds, the mother's intercession is granted, and a Canaanite woman too, is a recipient of God’s healing grace. She will gladly gather, without apology, the crumbs under Jesus’ table!

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Feeding of the Crowds: Guided Meditation

During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children finally slept in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.” Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life,  Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, Matthew Linn 

The Gospel Matthew 14: 13-21
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. 

Guided Meditation 
I invite you to reflect on the Gospel story, as if you were one of Jesus’ disciples. It may help to read it slowly, pausing as you feel led. Close the exercise with the Our Father.

It’s a sunny, breezy, late morning on the lake. Soon, I will be breaking bread with Jesus, the first time since the disturbing news of John’s beheading. While I gather at the table with the others, I ask, “where is Jesus?” I run out to see Jesus, who is wading out to a boat anchored off the beach. Quickly, he climbs in, then rows farther offshore. I call to him and track him from the shoreline. Jogging along the crest of the slope, I stop at a lookout point to catch my breath. I see a huge, hidden cove below: a beach teaming with thousands of people. The crowd extends from the water up the slopes. In amazement, I carefully walk down the sand and rocks… 

I spot Jesus standing at the water’s edge, healing and curing everyone he can touch. He takes time to be with each person. From the youngest to the oldest, in families or by themselves, they come. There is no one with Jesus’ compassion and determination. He is like a good shepherd who loves and protects his sheep no matter what. I am moved to tears, tears of gratitude and joy… 

As the afternoon light wanes, I hear someone say “It’s almost evening now.” Another one wants Jesus to send everyone away. I overhear Jesus’ reply, “Don’t send anyone away. You give them something to eat.”  A boy has brought a small serving of smoked fish and bread. He shares what he has, bringing it to Jesus. I hear Jesus’ words to us, “We are a free people. Thanks be to God for the bread we need. Everyone, please find a place on the green grass. There is room for all.” Today, even though everything seems to be against us, God’s presence is here, and I feel a peace and safety deep in my soul… 

I see Jesus giving thanks over the food. He then starts to break the bread into family size pieces. I hear Jesus say, “Blessed are you when you are kind and merciful to others.” When I receive my piece of bread, I pass it along. The pace quickens as more and more bread is passed. As far as I can see, people are eating to their contentment. All are having their fill! What an unbelievable sight! Joy overwhelms me...

As the crowd begins to break up, the many conversations trail off into the twilight, I join some friends. We gather the leftovers. There’s enough extra for the few of us, but right now, that doesn’t seem important. I’m bursting with thanksgiving for Jesus. Somehow this day has renewed my hope. I feel fully loved and alive. I dedicate myself to loving God and friends, family- even people I dislike or who dislike me. My heart overflows with love...

Oldies but Goodies