Humility. In a world roaring with voices and searching for equity, justice, inclusion and change, humility would have no place. Such a world asks more: the choice, the action, the photo, the video, shot and shared. It demands visibility, advocacy, deliberate involvement. Society is demanding so much more than in the past. But beneath all that churling action is another layer of human life. That is where the Gospel and the Paul’s Letter to the Philippians finds reasonance on this 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time: at home.

Humility. “Jesus was in the form of God but did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at…” Instead, he emptied himself into human form. And there he found the reality that M. Scott Peck summarized in three words: “Life is difficult.” Think about it…so many of the parables introduce deeply painful moments in life. The Prodigal Son story, the workers in the vineyard and fair wages, and today, the two sons: one who refuses his father’s request and the other who accedes to it. And then, the first actually performs the task and the second does not. And while rewards are discussed, the reality is there is no judgement in Jesus’ story. There is a keen sense of observation of human behavior, and a judgement-free zone about the choices and consequences. In those moments, Jesus lives out the humility of what it means to be human. It is not about power or control. It is about navigating the very difficult tides of human life and experiences.

Jesus recognized that each of us lives within systems that are not of our own construction or even liking. The traditional mantra for this is “Give to Cesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s.” But there were a multitude of systems that organized society and individual lives throughout history. There was Rome and the governorship, the Temple and the rabbis, the neighborhoods and families. Jesus neither contested nor challenged those in power. Instead, the challenges he constrcuted were deeply personal ones, and each one sprang from a worldview where God so loved the world that choice was paramount. Encouraging that, Jesus not only stepped away for his own power, but he invited others to do the same. He invites each of us to do the same in the places where we are, when we can and how we can manage. He reminds us that judgement of one another has no place, but conversation, communication, and choice is essential. In all of this, Jesus is illustrating very clearly what it means to be in the form of God and not seek equality with God.

That is the message that matters here: we are a nation engulfed in cataclysmic change at the moment. Acknowledging how difficult life is, how suffering is part of life and life itself is simply not fair means embracing our own humanity with humility. Raising our voices for change means making it better for the next generation. Humility recognizes the road is long and circuitous, but the path is of our own making.

Completely Other

This Sunday’s First Reading presents a passage from the prophet Isaiah. Chapter 55:6-9 speaks a message far louder than the words themselves.

6 Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near.

7 Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked his thoughts; let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.

8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

9 As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.

Hidden between the words and phrases is an enticing concept: God is completely Other. Who we are as humans is definable in some sense, but God is beyond that realm. Ever present, he is not easily visible. Clearly, His ways and His thoughts defy human imagination. And so it is that over the centuries and millennia, the sharp insight of Thomas Aquinas gains audience: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary; to one without faith, no explanation is possible.” In a world swirling with uncertainty, groaning with tragedies, bleeding with bitterness, there is a quiet faith sustaining hope and promise, a sense of presence.

Sustaining that faith means nurturing it personally, taking a moment to acknowledge Other or quietly praying the gentle cadence of the Hail Mary or the Our Father or the Sign of the Cross. Each whisper is a consciousness of a dimension that exists but may not be understood or explicable to one without faith. But that need not change the reality of faith or even challenge it. Faith is founded on trust and lives in hope, has the courage to entertain doubt and the depth to be explored. And it is the second reading of the day that highlights a second aspect of living faith: team work, community. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians opens with the words, “Christ will be magnified in my body whether by life or death…” and closes with, “I shall find that you are standing firm and united in spirit, battling, as a team with a single aim, for the faith of the gospel.

In other words, we cannot live this alone. We need one another to uplift, encourage, challenge and comfort, confront engage and grow. Believers are in this together at all times and especially in crisis. Sustaining faith means being aware of and maintaining community connections, reaching out and being reached out to. It means finding strength and courage in one another, entrusting the process of living to a wider community, sacrificing the self-centered certainties to something other, all in pursuit of the more. It is about living a message of respect for one another, for creation itself, in a generosity of spirit that defies human conventions.

That is where the Gospel reading, Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard, comes in. In paying all the laborers equal wages in spite of the fact of various start times, the owner of the vineyard completely defies human imagination about fairness or justice. In so many ways, the story epitomizes what “other” means. It is left to the person of faith to discover that Other in each day, each person, each experience. And slowly, with practice deepening convictions, Other becomes more real, more visible and even tangible in the world. For those who have faith, and those who do not, the world becomes a better place. Maybe that was the whole purpose from the very beginning.

The Forgiver

September is sliding into apple-picking season here in New England. There are those crisp clear nights that bear a hint of Autumn, and just enough cloud cover to contrast with just-emerging colors. That shift is reflected in the readings of the day; they are a summons to goodness, to forgiveness, to love. Jesus’ description of forgiveness offered “seventy times seven” in Matthew 18:22 is actually an invitation to come beyond where we are and realize the power that rests within each of us. It is a moment, like this time of September, about change.

Forgiveness is not a commodity; it is about communication. Most surprising is that the communication itself is deepening a connection. It is not simply about the forgiven; it is about the forgiver as well. To be the one who forgives, who possesses the wisdom, the strength and the courage to do that, is to be sharing compassion that is birthed in the divine, in the presence of Christ within each of us. It means drawing on grace to find freedom. And that means having a connection with God to draw on. We cannot give what we do not have. Sharing the relationship actually enables forgiveness to find a home in other relationships: knowing compassion in one connection leads to compassion in the next. Considering forgiveness of another means looking at self and being willing to change.

The Forgiver has power and risks the offer of forgiveness. The Forgiver must be observant and genuine, see the need for forgiveness even when no request is made. To forgive does not mean to allow perpetuation of a wrong. Nor does it mean that the Forgiver becomes a doormat. Instead, it means embracing reality: accepting what is. It is about moving comfortably in a universe changed and re-designed, better for all. For example, Tamerlyn realizes that her friend and co-owner is stealing from their meager profits and occasionally takes merchandise. Confrontation leads to bitter conflict. Tamerlyn offers forgiveness, but dissolves the business connection. Over time, a form of friendship is recovered. The benefits of this are profound for the Forgiver: a heart free from anger and a mind and soul unencumbered by the bitterness of the past. Moreover, recognizing and accepting the reality of the situation benefit the Forgiver, too, in moving forward.

The Forgiver facilitates the change, but the Forgiven face different choices. There is no less a sense of change or adaptation, though. Circumstances and situations vary so widely, but there is no doubt that every human hurts self and others on the journey of life. There are deliberate and calculated actions as well as words carelessly, insensitively used, and decisions made with dire uninended consequences. Here, too, self-awareness is critical. Realizing the impact of one’s actions, the capacity one has to harm and hurt, destroy and even decimate another is essential in the process of forgiveness. Without that critical understanding, the acknowledgement of personal responsibility, the full grace of forgiveness cannot be realized. The Forgiver can only communicate so much; the Forgiven must communicate, live a change, to seal that forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not like giving a nealy wrapped package; it is about a process of communication that is both deeply personal and necessarily interactive. “Seventy times seven” asks for so much more that a simple act; in so many ways, Jesus was not commanding an action. Instead, Jesus gave an invitation to learning more about the process of communication and becoming a better human being. And that just might mean embracing the many colors of Autumn.

Beauty of the Gray

There is a certain tenderness to the aging process, something that tempers youth’s passionate energies and reconsiders the pieces of the past with a generous understanding of life and truth. It is something that belongs wholly to those who have managed to navigate the complexities of life with reverence and reflection. More importantly, it enables an embrace of the future and a peace with the past. As it occurs, there is a new understanding of the stark contrasts of right and wrong, black and white, light and dark. Aging is the gift of seeing more realistically: self, others, life, truth. Ironically, the acquisition of wisdom comes in partnership with social marginalization: aging, whether we like it or not, means social irrelevance.

Life and truth find new birth in the aging process. Life possesses a treasured heartbeat. There is no longer an endless stream of sunrises: the consciousness of mortality makes it so. But there is a second reality: grappling with truth. Truth finds true resonance in the depth of the soul. Aging allows the understanding that everyone is sharing that resonance, trusting that gut interpretation, searching for the most meaningful truths of human life. Aging allows the embrace of difference, the consciousness of love, the confrontation with the spirit of the law. Most of all, aging provides possibility.

When I was a child, I found it odd that Jesus died at such a young age; it seemed as if everyone older than that would be unable to relate to Him, to call or mission. But as I grew, I learned that the stories of the Bible are often wrapped around that process of growth and aging: there was Abraham, Solomon, David. And in the New Testament, Zechariah and Elizabeth, even the father in the Prodigal Son story. The mirrors, the role models, are there and somehow, they are all connected to living life fully with a spirit of wondrous appreciation and love. That happens in the realization that few things in life are actually clear cut. Choices are complicated: motivations and purposes are diverse; right and wrong are not always easily visible. What seems so clear to one person is opaque to another: neither can grasp the other’s perspective. Being right or wrong has status and sometimes equates to a jostling for power. It is never simple. Aging is the process of letting go of all that, of the process of ascendancy. Aging is about accepting and living reality.

In today’s readings, Romans chapter 13 describes love as the fulfillment of the law. The Gospel reading from Matthew 18 contains the critical line, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Both passages echo a deep truth. Life is about learning how to love, not control one another. Being present to one another and relating through conscious choice. Love is about sharing deep understandings with one another, not being fearful of or threatening each other. Love is about intent, generosity, actions. It is not about power or acqusition of power. There lies the connection with aging.

So much of what was perceived as the life force, the vitality of life is fading in aging. Physical strength and appearance are altered and diminished. What really matters in living becomes far more visible and valuable. The challenges of the past can be looked at once again, and the hurts can be consigned to a broader context…there is the chance to let go of the anger, the griefs, and the losses. Ironically, aging offers the chance to begin again. It may not be visible to everyone, but this is actually something that cannot be understood until actually experienced. Being at home as a Catholic means being all about the journey of life, and realizing the beauty of the gray.