Tag Archives: kingdom of God

Numbers

Our new president is interested in numbers. How many people were at his inauguration; how many votes did he get? Numbers indicate power and popularity.

I think Jesus’ disciples were interested in numbers too. In Mark’s gospel, which we’re reading at Mass these days, Jesus begins his ministry in Capernaum before an enthusiastic crowd. At the end of his first day, the whole town gathers at the door of Peter’s house and word reaches out to other towns and places that a prophet has come. The numbers go up. (Mark 1, 21-34)

But then enthusiasm dies down as Jesus’ authority is questioned. His own hometown, Nazareth, takes a dim view of him; religious leaders from Jerusalem and the followers of Herod Antipas cast doubts about him. Gradually, Capernaum and the other towns that welcomed Jesus enthusiastically turn against him. The numbers go down.

His disciples must have wondered why. Why did people oppose him? Why are the numbers going down? It didn’t make sense.

In our reading from Mark’s gospel Jesus answers them. God‘s working in this world, the kingdom of God is coming, but human beings are mostly unaware of it.
“This is how it is with the Kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.” (Mark 4, 28-34)

A greater power is at work in the scattered seed; the one casting it to the ground knows little about the way it grows. The seed takes time, with its own law of growth; a great harvest will come, but it will come in mystery.

Meanwhile, we worry about numbers. Why are a growing number of Americans–almost 25%– giving up going to church or synagogue? Why are there so few vocations to our religious communities? So many of the good things in this world seem to be diminishing.

What can we do? Treasure the seed we have, scatter it as we can, look into the signs of the times. The Kingdom of God comes.

20th Sunday C: Speaking Truth

To listen to today’s homily, please select the audio file below:

Our first reading this Sunday is from the prophet Jeremiah, a lonely prophet–some might say a dreary prophet. He had the misfortune of living  at a time when people were unquestioning about the prevailing wisdom of their day.

The ruling king in Judea was smart and popular; his advisors unanimously backed him, his army was loyal and public opinion was on his side– almost 99%.  Except for Jeremiah, who spoke against his policies, questioned his advisors, scolded his soldiers and predicted the destruction ofJerusalem.

What do you do with someone like that? They decided to bury Jeremiah in a deep cistern where no one could hear him and eventually he would die. He was only saved because someone said he shouldn’t die, his voice should be heard.

Well, shortly afterwards, in 586 BC, the Babylonians came into Judea, leveled Jerusalem to the ground and carried away most of its population as slaves to Babylon– as Jeremiah had predicted.

Jeremiah wasn’t fanatical, a fanatic doesn’t question himself. He was a realist, a man who believed in God and saw things as they are.  In the book that bears his name, he repeatedly questions himself and worries about what people were saying. He wants to be accepted – like us all. He complains to God about being a prophet but realizes a prophet has to speak, even if he’s out-of-step with the prevailing wisdom of his day.

Listen to Jesus in the gospel today. You can hear the prophet Jeremiah. Jesus brings fire to the earth. Fire can bring light and warmth, but fire can also drive away. Faith can bring people together, but it can also bring separation, even dividing families. It can bring loneliness and unacceptance, especially when it challenges the prevailing wisdom of the day.   

How does faith clash with our prevailing wisdom today? For one thing, it can clash with our prevailing concept of happiness. Our prevailing wisdom says we have a right to perfect human happiness, here and now, you, me, everybody.  We have a right to perfect health, a perfect body, a perfect mind, a perfect life.

Utopia is right around the corner, in the laboratory waiting to be discovered, in political platforms waiting to implemented. Never mind a heaven above, we want a heaven on earth. A world where there’s no sickness, no sorrow, or death. Heaven on earth.

So we tell the drug companies and our medical establishment – “Give us bodies that will dance every day and minds that will never fail. Take loneliness away from us, help us live on a high. Give us eternal youth, give us life-long sexual pleasure, give us perfect health and a lot of wealth. 

So we tell our leaders and politicians to promise us everything under the sun and then get it done right away.

But does happiness, complete happiness come right away? Yes, we pray that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. But it will come on God’s time, not ours. It will be God’s kingdom, not ours. To trust in ourselves or in human promises and progress brings disappointment and even hopelessness.

We need to listen to prophets like Jeremiah and the warnings of Jesus. We have to recognize the incompleteness of the world we live in and to trust in the fire that never goes out.

That’s the wisdom we hear in an old song, which you don’t hear sung too much any more.

“I’m just a poor, warfarin stranger, traveling through this world of woe. There’s no sickness, no toil or sorrow, in that dear land to which I go.”

Jeremiah could have sung that song.

Clay Feet

As the church year ends we read apocalyptic writings, the Book of Daniel and apocalyptic sections from the gospels.They’re about the future, the day of the Lord, when the kingdom of God finally comes and humanity and creation itself attain the goal intended by God from the beginning.

We’re like the people Jesus describes in Luke’s gospel, however, those in the days of Noah and the days of Lot who were “eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building.” (Luke 17, 26-30) We like our normal lives.

For that reason, these writings make us uneasy, because they point to a future that’s far from normal: “wars and insurrections, nation rising against nation, powerful earthquakes, famines, plagues, awesome sights and mighty signs in the sky” (Luke 21, 7-28) And there’s persecution besides. We don’t want those things in our lives.

Jesus promises in these same readings that not a hair of our head will be harmed, that we will have the strength to endure whatever happens, that we’ll be able to give testimony, that we will have the wisdom to understand it all. But still, we’re unsettled by it all.

If faith helps us into the future and the life to come, what can these readings teach us?

The Book of Daniel, which we’re also reading at Mass this week, recalls King Nebuchadnezzar training Daniel and three other young Jewish exiles in Babylon to serve as his advisors. The king has a lot on his hands to deal with, and he needs a brain trust to help him see where he’s been and where he’s going. People in charge always need advice.

Daniel gives Nebuchadnezzar a picture of the future that he wasn’t expecting. Other empires will follow him and his kingdom will come to an end, Daniel tells him. The great powers of his world have clay feet; they collapse and fall to the ground. The only kingdom that endures is God’s kingdom, a stone hewn from a mountain.

Daniel wasn’t afraid to present the king with reality. Is that what we learn from apocalyptic readings? God works through reality, they tell us, whether wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues, persecutions. Yet, the kingdom of God will come, no matter what. So don’t fear the future, whether your own or that of the world.

“When these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” (Luke 21, 28)

St. Paul of the Cross

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A saint’s work is never done because, like Jesus Christ, the saints reach beyond their time and place.  They’re agents of God’s plan. Their work is not finished at their death– our belief in the communion of saints reminds us–and even in old age they saw something yet to do.

They never say “The work is done,” and neither should we.

I’m reminded of a poem called “What then?” by W.B. Yeats; which he wrote as an old man at the end of a successful career filled with literary honors, financial rewards and a host of friends. You would think he’d sit down and enjoy it all, but listen to him as he hears the challenge of more to do:

‘The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost,’What then?’

I’m sure St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of my community, the Passionists, is saying something like that from his place in heaven where he guides us still.

May the priest Saint Paul, whose only love was the Cross,

obtain for us your grace, O Lord,

so  that, urged on more strongly by his example,

we may each embrace our own cross with courage.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

28th Sunday B: Aiming Higher

 

The audio homily is here:

The rich young man in today’s gospel seems like a nice enough person, doesn’t he? In fact, he looks like someone you’d want your daughter to meet. Good living, good to his father and mother, good morals. Well heeled financially; talented maybe, good education, has a good job, good connections. Good catch.

Is Jesus being too strong with him? Instead of giving the young man a pat on the back and telling him he’s doing great, Jesus seems to tell him he’s not doing enough. He’s urging him on to be more.

We have to fit any gospel story like this one, into the larger story the gospel wants to tell. The gospel we’re reading on most Sundays this year is the Gospel of Mark? What’s the larger message it wants us to hear.

The Kingdom of God has come, Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark. The world’s going to change, and Jesus is the one who will bring it about. But he’s not going to bring it about alone. We’re called to join him, to follow him, to change the world with him. That means we have to go beyond ourselves and our own interests and our own plans. We have to live in a bigger world. God’s world. “Your Kingdom come, your will be done,” we say in the Lord’s Prayer.

Often enough, this gospel is seen as a challenge to young people, like the rich young man, to embrace a church vocation, like entering religious life, or becoming a priest. I would love some young people to respond to a challenge like that, but it seems to me the call of Jesus in this gospel is wider than that.

The winners of the Noble prize are being announced at this time. I saw an interview with the winner of the prize for physics, a Japanese scientist, Takaaki Kajita. I don’t know anything about what he discovered, neutrinos, but his discovery has changed the way we understand matter and our view of the universe. In the interview you saw someone excited about what he was doing, dedicated to what he was doing, and urging young people to become interested in science.

I think Jesus would say here’s someone, not trapped in self-interest, but deeply engaged in the pursuit of truth.

I don’t want to limit the gospel message to Noble prize winners either. We’re all called to enlarge our own horizons, to go beyond our safe zones and live and work in a bigger world.

The Synod on the Family is taking place in Rome now. One of its goals is to urge all of us not to give up on families. In the western world, many young people are not getting married, not having children. It seems that people are afraid to get married; instead retreat into themselves. Marriage and family and children are part of God’s plan. They’re worth giving your life to.

In our story today Jesus tells all of us to aim higher than ourselves and our own interests. How do we know what to aim for what are we to do? Our first reading for today, from the Book of Wisdom tells us that.

I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.
Beyond health and comeliness I loved her,
and I chose to have her rather than the light,
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.
Yet all good things together came to me in her company,
and countless riches at her hands. Wisdom 7, 7-11

What Does Christmas Mean?

On Thursday, December 20th, Pope Benedict XVI wrote an article on the meaning of Christmas for the Financial Times of London. So different from the recent article in Newsweek by Bart Ehrman, struggling over what’s historical in the infancy narratives and what isn’tadoration. The pope’s article, summarizing his recent book, is about what the birth of Jesus says to our world today. Here’s his text from Vatican Radio:

A time for Christians to engage with the world

“Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” was the response of Jesus when asked about paying taxes. His questioners, of course, were laying a trap for him. They wanted to force him to take sides in the highly-charged political debate about Roman rule in the land of Israel.

Yet there was more at stake here: if Jesus really was the long-awaited Messiah, then surely he would oppose the Roman overlords. So the question was calculated to expose him either as a threat to the regime, or a fraud.

Jesus’ answer deftly moves the argument to a higher plane, gently cautioning against both the politicization of religion and the deification of temporal power, along with the relentless pursuit of wealth. His audience needed to be reminded that the Messiah was not Caesar, and Caesar was not God. The kingdom that Jesus came to establish was of an altogether higher order. As he told Pontius Pilate, “My kingship is not of this world.”

The Christmas stories in the New Testament are intended to convey a similar message. Jesus was born during a “census of the whole world” taken by Caesar Augustus, the Emperor renowned for bringing the Pax Romana to all the lands under Roman rule. Yet this infant, born in an obscure and far-flung corner of the Empire, was to offer the world a far greater peace, truly universal in scope and transcending all limitations of space and time. Jesus is presented to us as King David’s heir, but the liberation he brought to his people was not about holding hostile armies at bay; it was about conquering sin and death forever.

The birth of Christ challenges us to reassess our priorities, our values, our very way of life. While Christmas is undoubtedly a time of great joy, it is also an occasion for deep reflection, even an examination of conscience. At the end of a year that has meant economic hardship for many, what can we learn from the humility, the poverty, the simplicity of the crib scene?

Christmas can be the time in which we learn to read the Gospel, to get to know Jesus not only as the Child in the manger, but as the one in whom we recognize God made Man. It is in the Gospel that Christians find inspiration for their daily lives and their involvement in worldly affairs – be it in the Houses of Parliament or the Stock Exchange. Christians shouldn’t shun the world; they should engage with it. But their involvement in politics and economics should transcend every form of ideology.

Christians fight poverty out of a recognition of the supreme dignity of every human being, created in God’s image and destined for eternal life. Christians work for more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources out of a belief that, as stewards of God’s creation, we have a duty to care for the weakest and most vulnerable.

Christians oppose greed and exploitation out of a conviction that generosity and selfless love, as taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth, are the way that leads to fullness of life.

Christian belief in the transcendent destiny of every human being gives urgency to the task of promoting peace and justice for all.

Because these goals are shared by so many, much fruitful cooperation is possible between Christians and others.

Yet Christians render to Caesar only what belongs to Caesar, not what belongs to God. Christians have at times throughout history been unable to comply with demands made by Caesar.

From the Emperor cult of ancient Rome to the totalitarian regimes of the last century, Caesar has tried to take the place of God. When Christians refuse to bow down before the false gods proposed today, it is not because of an antiquated world-view. Rather, it is because they are free from the constraints of ideology and inspired by such a noble vision of human destiny that they cannot collude with anything that undermines it.

In Italy, many crib scenes feature the ruins of ancient Roman buildings in the background. This shows that the birth of the child Jesus marks the end of the old order, the pagan world, in which Caesar’s claims went virtually unchallenged.

Now there is a new king, who relies not on the force of arms, but on the power of love. He brings hope to all those who, like himself, live on the margins of society. He brings hope to all who are vulnerable to the changing fortunes of a precarious world. From the manger, Christ calls us to live as citizens of his heavenly kingdom, a kingdom that all people of good will can help to build here on earth.

Shelter Island Thoughts

 

I spent this past week on vacation with two other members of my community on Shelter Island at a retreat house for youth that we’ve recently closed and now are in the process of selling. It’s a place of memories for us, a summer paradise for swimming and sports and a vibrant place where thousands of young people over the years found spiritual nourishment in programs for the young.

Now, like so many other good places devoted to spiritual purposes throughout the county, it’s closing. You have to feel a sense of failure and disappointment. What’s happening, we ask?

Finances and personnel are the reasons we point to, but these don’t answer the question adequately. Our society has lost its interest in God. Not everybody, to be sure, but for many the search for God has fallen down the list of their priorities. As I write, I’m watching an instructor teaching children how to play tennis in this place where young people were once taught to pray.

Religious people like ourselves, supposedly the guardians and promoters of religion, wonder if we are to blame. On EWTN the other night, Fr. Benedict Groeschel seemed to think so; he criticized religious communities for their “worldliness” and there’s some truth in his criticism, but it’s not the complete answer by any means.

I’m reading Pope Benedict’s book “ Jesus of Nazarth” these days and there are two sections in it I find particularly helpful. The first, is his section on the Kingdom of God, and as I read it this place came to mind.

The Kingdom of God is a complex concept; the first disciples of Jesus were not sure what it was. They had  kingdoms of their own in mind that they thought might fit the bill. But Jesus said his kingdom was not like theirs. If it were, his followers would have risen up to stop his enemies putting him to death, but his kingdom was not of this world.

Our kingdoms tend to be like those of Jesus’ first disciples. They may be treasured, holy,  wonderful places in themselves, but they’re kingdoms of the world. Our temptation, like the last temptation of Jesus in the desert, is to hold on to them as if they were the Kingdom of God. But God lets them pass away so that we may search again. Is that what God is doing now?

“Thy Kingdom come,” we say in our prayer, not “My Kingdom come.”

The second section of the pope’s book I found helpful was his thoughts on “Resurrection Thinking,” (my phrase, not his). After the resurrection the disciples of Jesus did a lot of thinking about what had happened before. “When he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.” (John 2,22) Over and over the gospels tell us his disciples remembered something he said or did, sometimes they were terrible things like the events of his passion and death, but now they saw them in a new light.

They didn’t even delete their own sinfulness and lack of faith from the remembered story.

“The Resurrection,” the pope says, “teaches us a new way of seeing.” (p.232) We can look into ruins and see another life rise in them. “Behold, I make all things new.”

What will be the new life we see rising from here? The pope says “all” the disciples were involved in this “Resurrection Thinking.” It takes place through prayerfulness.  A guide, the Spirit of Truth, is there to point our way to the future.

What’s involved today here at Shelter Island, and in so many other places like it, is more than waiting for a buyer.