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Labor and Rest

“Come to me, all who labor without rest…for my yoke is easy and my burden is light…” Mt. 11

Those words conjure a beast plowing the driest of fields under an unrelenting sun with the incomprehensible weight of a wooden yoke trapping the creature into a predetermined task. Somehow, the yoke itself seemed an unbearable burden, a tool of oppression. But yesterday, in a newly re-opened church masked with tape and signs of social distancing, I heard a priest reflect on those very words. And I began to see something different in them, something of the intimate connection between the created, the Creator, and the Eucharist.

He launched the homily with recollections of his experiences discussing homiletics with young priests. Masked and seated, his large frame was relaxed. His audience was familiar, his presence appreciated. His tenor was at odds with the strictures of social distancing, but his voice was rich in inflection and focus. The worst thing that could happen after a homly, he said, was that the congregation says, “So what?” Hours of reflection or preparation were not what mattered: connecting with people does matter. Making it relelvant. Making it matter. So he tore away the impression that exegesis or intellectual leaps were necessary. Know who you are talking to. Say what matters. Let Scripture speak to this time, to our time, to this moment.

His own homily, then, was not a theological treatise, but an acknowledgement of the trials of the past year and especially the past six months. Not lingering with the public or the political, he connected words born in centuries long past to the lives and experiences of today. He focused on just a few phrases from the Gospel.

28 “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.

29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.

30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

And then he confided what mattered. The words are an invitation to the table of worship, to come here to spend time. Rest here, before the altar, and share those burdens and that labor. Become connected. Realize that you are never alone in that labor or those journeys. Meet again with the God who loves and cares for us, who embraces the burdens we carry, who is so deeply connected to us that we are literally yoked tome another. Lay down the burdens. Know that the struggle is neither fruitless or meaningless. Each life has significance, and ours is a God who cares so deeply for each one of us. We are continually invited to come to him. He is waiting for us.

Life is a conspiracy of circumstance. So much is simply beyond personal control, dependent on variables unknown, unexpected, unseen. There are chance encounters, magical moments and deadly turns. It is exhilirating and exhausting, sometimes all at once. In all this, there is the soft and reassuring words. “Come to me, all who labor without rest…for my yoke is easy and my burden is light…” Perhaps it was never about the beast of burden at all.

Imagine

Somewhere in our world, there is a baby cradled safely in a mother’s arms, surrounded and protected by love that defies all explanations. Somewhere, there is an adult child gently stroking the hand of a dying parent, an escort on the final steps of a long journey. Somewhere, there are essential workers expending every energy on the safety and care of the suffering, the forlorn, the forgotten. Imagine the love that drives and shapes each scenario actually pervading other interactions. Imagine we were able to transcend differences, link to commonalities, and choose to do the right thing.

This week’s Gospel reading, from Matthew 10, posits such a possibility. The phrases are powerful and challenging, but the essence of each line suggests that differences have always been divisive. And yet, the message is clear. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” There, within each of us, the divine resides. It is up to each of us to live like that, to dare to welcome and to celebrate that reality. Teresa of Avila pulled it together with a slightly different perspective.

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

That perspective is the reminder of what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Christ. It is to become Christ himself for others, to be far more than an image and truly bring the presence of God to another human being. It is a call to be the best self at all times: to be generous, kind, truthful, empathetic, and purposeful. It is to remember, in all humility, that making Christ manfest to one another is a critical resposibility of all Christians. In any and every interaction, there is that chance to look compassion on the world, walk to do good, to bless all the world.

Now more than ever, that message can make a dramatic difference in the world that we live in. The divisive rhetoric, labelling and accusations, fearful exchanges, threats and destruction dominate so much of contemporary conversation. But this Gospel message asks for more, asks for the pause to think about what really matters. Teresa of Avila provides that more in her thinking about Christ’s presence in the world. Listening, embracing and living the message is a daily challenge for every Christian. To live that challenge demands a real consciousness of other, an attentiveness that places other first and self second. It is the very selflessness that Christ brought to the world. Listening, caring, doing, are redemptive acts. It is time to imagine a new world, one where the discord and the drama are left behind and the presence of God can be experienced in every interaction. Imagine what a world like that could look like.

Without Condition

Junetenth. Father’s Day. Black Lives Matter. Tulsa Oklahoma. Coronavirus. America divided: splits, issues, defind the police, DACA. Tumultuous times. Anxieties. Stress. Loss. Grief. And for Catholics, the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time. But these are no ordinary times. Or are they?

Struggle defines human life experience. M. Scott Peck captured that reality in the opening lines of the Road Less Travelled: “Life is difficult.” Expectations might deny that, but the truth of it spills out in the power plays and interactions that characterize daily communication. Seeking to outdistance that truth, outrage, frustration, denial and grief jockey for human expression. Seeping into the public sphere, awkward insecurities, misinterpretations of issues and lack of clarity can inhibit real communication about the difficulties and ways of introducing effective change. But if we can maintain a basic understanding that life is difficult, compassion can seed empathy and growth can take place. And if we can believe that there is no need for fear or anxiety, that normal is actually difficult and none of us are immune from that, there is a chance to move beyond where we are.

That is exactly the invitation from the readings this Sunday. The liturgical world refers to this as “Ordinary Time”, but these readings are all about overcoming fear and trusting God’s love. There is Jeremiah’s lament contrasted so deeply with his confidence in God. Romans 5 is a reminder of the overflowing of God’s grace, and John’s Gospel begins with the admonition. “Fear no one.” Trust and confidence are the cornerstones of love; love is the cornerstone of life. That sort of love, deep and certain, concrete and clear, a definitive choice, empowers strength, redefines courage. The idea that God chooses the gift of unconditional love during ordinary times is extraordinary by any standard. Most importantly, in both the mundane and the incomprehensible, there is the rhythm of this love waiting to be found, to sustain and to energize each one through the challenges life represents.

Now is the moment to trust in the fact that even ordinary life is difficult, that there are challenges that can be met with confidence in this unconditional love. There is the chance that in the midst of such tumultuous times, the message of the Gospel offers hope, a perspective for looking at the string of events that are occurring. It means looking at the world with feet firmly planted on the ground, knowing that the earth is shaped by far more than what can be seen. It is a testimony to the idea that in even the most difficult of moments, God is present and offers more than what can be imagined. Stress and anxiety may be the companions of difficult lives; there are ways to address it. And the readings of the Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time speak to this very moment.

Corpus Christi

Dissonance has become routine for us now: there are protest rallies and pandemic warnings, demands and losses, side by side. Credibility and confusion are nearly synonymous, and subjectivity often disguises truth. Who to believe? What to believe? How to live in a world like this? We condemn what we have been given, loathe one another’s perspectives, find home on the soap box of media. What is possible now? How can we make a beginning of a world better than this? On this Corpus Christi Sunday, there are clues.

Re-discovering what we have in common as human beings might be the first step. We are masters at discovering and celebrating difference. And yet, over these past weeks of lockdown, we have proven that we can comply with directives for the good of all and that we reserve the right to differ. We are experts at using social media to bare souls and expose injustice. But we use it for labelling, derision, negation and bullying as well. And sometimes, we do not see the difference. We have challenged and discredited our social institutions, and we are rewriting our history. But we are not all quite in agreement over either of those. So how can we mind a moment and name what it is that makes us human?

Corpus Christi is the reminder that we are all happily and hopelessly human. We share a comon need: food and sustenance. Corpus Christi is a celebration of what binds us together as humans; it is the feast that invites us to look at the sameness, to discover as Paul did, that “…we, although there are many of us, are one single body, for we all share in the one loaf.” (2 Cor 10) To imagine, in our world of difference, discouragement, disdain and discrimination, that we are actually all one body is an enormous movement towards recognizing that which we have in common.

Corupus Christi is also the reminder that we need one another; within that single body, we cannot be whole without all the parts. The body system is complicated and multi-faceted. Imagining that enables us to see the uniqueness of each member of the human family, to appreciate the depth of need for one another and the possibilities for expressing that with gratitude and understanding. And there is the practical point that if we are indeed one body, then protecting and preserving that is a responsibility that falls to all of us.

For Catholics, there is the final point as well: we belong to God as fully as we belong to one another. The belief that God exists, cares, and invites us to co-create our world gives power to the understanding that we need one another. It also provides actionable steps: it is ours to choose to be attentive to the needs of each part of the body, to care as lovingly for one another as God does for us.

That is a tall order. In reality, the presence of the Eucharist, that central element in every service, is the gift of the one loaf, the gift that noursihes us. We sustain one another in the way God sustains us: with the one loaf.

No Ordinary Time

In the midst of a pandemic, the US has exploded with social unrest and anger. Loss and grief have edged into soul-searching confusion challenging personal and national identity, flooding social media with accusations and rumors, and energizing the need to address our flawed brokenness. The safety of our self-understanding has been upended first by the virus and now by the rage. We are a nation that has lost a sense of cultural literacy, a common narrative, systems that are trusted. Instead, we have become a nation of multitudinous voices competing for recognition, change and improvement. Everyone is talking. Dare we listen to one another? Dare we open dialogue?

As Catholics, this is a moment that demands attention. It is about the most treasured of gifts: life itself. Foundational to the conviction that each life matters is the essence of human responsibility: to care for each life in ways that are nurturing, viable, and effective. This rests alongside the reality that each individual possesses personal choice and personal responsibility; that is exercised in wider communities creating networks of communicating, caring and compassion. And in the odd way that so often happens, the lectionary readings for Sunday, June 7, speak to all that with simple elegance.

Even within the chaos of this moment, God is present. There is the scene of Moses, tablets cut and ready, promising a god of mercy and compassion, slow to anger. Then there is Moses’ request for the company of God on the journey ahead…in spite of the acknowledgment of the obstinate nature of the people. The Responsorial Psalm is from Daniel; strikingly, the passage points to th presence of God in all things, all moments, what is real and what is only imagined. Second Cornithians carries the theme into a different arena: to strive to encourage one another, to find a common mind or common ground, to live in peace and know the presence of God even more deeply. Finally, there is the lynchpin of the Gospel: that above all, God wishes to save the world. And so, God gave his only Son to the world.

Tidily, the readings provide somwhat simple and clear guidelines for navigating these challenging times. The reminders are explicit: God is present; it is ours to acknowledge that, to explore and celebrate it. With that in mind, it is ours to actively support and encourage one another, to become collaborators in creating peace in our world. Investing trust in God, we become the wayfinders of this era. We become co-heirs in creation. We become people who value life, know purpose, and live compassion.

The choices lay bare before us. In a calamitous world, there is the chance to become harbingers of peace. It will require the conviction of Moses, the devotion of Daniel, the zeal of Paul and the certainty of the Gospel writer. It can be done. It has been done in the past and can be done once more. Essentially, human beings have been entrusted with choice. It is all up to us, to our responses, our values and our beliefs. It is time to offer the best of ourselves on the journey.

Collaborators in Creation

Images capture so much in so few words. The images of Pentecost Sunday abound: flames dance above the heads of the Apostles, or the widespread wings of a glowing dove hovers protectively above them. Those pictures resided unchallenged in my memory until I met a powerful presence in the form of a Poor Clare nun. She was actually incongrusously small. She was the first to suggest that while I had grown physically and intellectually, I failed to allow faith and religious belief to mature. With a conspiratorial wink and a soft chuckle, she invited me to new territory: faith as an educated adult. And at the time, her own prayer life was animated by her understanding of the third person of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. Conversation with her was beguiling: she touched on the presence , movement and gifts of the Spirit. I often left with only fragments of understanding and wondering about the more. But there was her consistent sense that these were moments of simply sewing seeds for understanding. At the time, I could not even imagine next steps. But now, in the midst of a pandemic, Pentecost Sunday has suddenly found new meaning in our suffering world.

Pentecost Sunday. What was it really about? Beginning again in the wake of traumatic loss and tumultuous change. Wrestling a heady freedom from the intense grip of fear. Finding forgiveness in the recognition of self in others. Taking action with certainty and trust. Pentecost. Pandemic. It is time to take the leap of trust that Pentecost intimates, to allow the reality of what it means to literally go forth.

For the Apostles and disciples, their worlds and lives were slowly reopening, tenderly present to the idea that Jesus may not always be with them. but would never leave them. The Spirit provides that reality, that comfort. Tucked in the passages of Scripture far from the complexities of theological constructs, this is the promise that God’s presence permeates life and opens new life experiences. It is about ordinary people finding extraordinary comfort in the acknowledgment of God’s love. In the first phases of re-opening, in the tentative apprehension and the layers of anxiety, Pentecost offers encouragement, empowerment: love is greater than fear. Through the months of quarantines and chronicling the curve, there have been countless acts of coming together: birthday trains, road signs, food and PPE drives, concerts and performances, nightly cheering the frontline workers. Coming together allows each one of us to enter into the “all of us”, to be more together than we were apart. The disciples walked that same path.

That very step requires a great deal of trust: trust that each of us will do what is best for all of us. Navigating the early phases of opening has proven to be demanding: the spread of the virus highlighted the social and economic inequalities in society, fueled unemployment and economic losses and has allowed the re-emergence of racism and abuses of power. Pentecost, on the other hand, profers the opportunity to take a step back. Pentecost is a celebration of the idea that we are, as Teilhard de Chardin suggests, collaborators in creation. Alive with the Spirit, the disciples set out to celebrate and share the presence of God in the world. Theirs was a conscious effort with clear intent. This year, as educated adults and people of faith, we share in that call to become collaborators in creation. We share in the call to trust and to trustworthiness; we are linked over centuries to the disciples whose trusting response to the Spirit made things happen. This year, animated by the Spirit, we too can make things happen.

Love

Covid-19 has proven that we are terribly fragile and defiantly strong. Our world is one of incomprehensible dichotomies, dominated by contrasting views, and vested in divergent hopes. And yet, we are all here together, searching for ways to get through and somehow manage surviving what we cannot possibly control. As Catholics, today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension. In deference to the virus, we celebrate in our cars, in parking lots outside our churches, in makeshift fashion. Humbled, we gather to share the Eucharistic presence and re-name our truths. The truth is that we believe in the presence of God in the world and in the Eucharist. And celebrating it, even in cars and at home live-streamed, we are able to touch on the deepest reality of all: God is present with us, cares for us, and provides for us. In the midst of a pandemic, there is a palpable sense of the sacred.

The feast of the Ascension gives shape to the idea that those we love may not always be with us, but they will never leave us. That phrase, the whisper of the dying, the promise to those about to be orphaned, the acknowledgement of separated lovers and families, yeilds a deeper truth. The mystery of Easter unfolds with the Resurrection, but it becomes reality in the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost that follow. It is not about the feasts, of course, but about the presence of God in the world, the reality of an unconditional love that transcends human limitiations and defies human expectation.

In a world where physical contact is limited and presence often virtual, denial of the intangible is tempting. But the existence of love cannot be denied; its forms and ideations, even its distortions and misappropriations, are lived out in startling patterns with an alarming regularity. This Sunday, as Catholics, we are invited to consider a Love that is distinctively different. Unconditional Love is not bound by the measures of the human; it is the signature of the Divine. And here, in the weeks after Easter, the expression of Unconditional Love marches confidently into the territory of the mysterious and the sacred. Here is the story of those last experiences of Jesus among his disciples; here He confides the concept that physical presence is not necessary to the continuity of relationship. Here is the idea that his disciples are now charged with the task of sharing, somehow, the idea of Love and relationship that defies the parameters of human understanding.

In grasping for it, we must proceed as Pierre Teilhard deChardin SJ suggested…”as if limits of our abilities did not exist”. In living it, we must see ourselves as he said, as “collaborators in creation.” In hoping for it, we must believe as Teilhard de Chardin did, that “love is a scared reserve of energy”, the force that unites and recreates who and what we are. Love like this is the ultimate tool of creation. It is the kind of love that is born from trust and gives birth to the hope and strength needed to survive a pandemic, to navigate ordinary days and nights, to sculpt a lifestyle and grow into old age.

Dare to Choose

Sixth Sunday of Easter.  Ninth week of quarantine.  Rumblings and reopenings.  New beginnings.  And the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John whispering promises of a future bright with presence.

Gospel JN 14:15-21

Jesus said to his disciples:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
And I will ask the Father,
and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always,
the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept,
because it neither sees nor knows him.
But you know him, because he remains with you,
and will be in you.
I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.
In a little while the world will no longer see me,
but you will see me, because I live and you will live.
On that day you will realize that I am in my Father
and you are in me and I in you.
Whoever has my commandments and observes them
is the one who loves me.
And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”

http://usccb.org/bible/readings/051720.cfm

In the midst of this pandemic, there is a certain poignancy to Jesus’ promise not to leave us, and to the idea that he is in us, and we are in him.  It is confided with the certainty of truth, and it dares us to face underlying realities.  Because Jesus is not talking about the worries that consume us or the fears that are devouring us.  Instead, he is talking about the idea of presence within each other, being for and about each other.  It is the mingling of the human and the divine, and he is promising that.

In a time overwrought with deaths and loss, with fear and divisiveness, Jesus is speaking of an idea so startingly simple it is genuinely profound.  Love transcends all the barriers, eliminates the conflcits, empowers possibility.  Love is real; it exists within each of us. Love is of God, sustained and nurtured by God.  Jesus does not labor here with promises of success or predictions fo achievements.  Instead, He promises presence, connection: love.  There is nothing more important than that.

Love lives because of the  Spirit of Truth.  Confined as we are to digital reality, it would be easy to choose what is virtual.  But this week, in this Gospel, Jesus is giving us much more than that.  He acknowledges that the Spirit of Truth belongs to the each of us, the very ordinary believers.   He cautions that the world cannot accept this because the world cannot accept him.  That opens the question of choice, of decision and choosing to look at Jesus and to consider the Spirit of Truth.  And perhaps that is the real challenge.

Stumbling through quarantine, through life itself, we can choose to forego the awareness of the divine, of love, of somehow being part of God and part of one another.  Love breathes hope into painful moments, comfort in devastation, clarity in confusion.  Love invites us beyond what is to what can be.  Dare to choose love.

 

Great Realization

There is a video, a father reading a book to his child.  The child begs for the story about the coronavirus; the father reads “The Great Realization”, a poetic tale of  the pre and post pandemic worlds.  It captures the hope that the suffering of all these months will yield to a world where values are more clear, actions and choices more deliberate, and delusions of wealth and grandeur no longer intrigue an unwitting populace.  And now, rolling into the third month of social distancing  and gliding towards summer, reality remains raw and unexpected.  Perhaps the secret is in how we perceive it all, what we believe it to be, and what we dare to name as hopes.

Right now, we occupy that transitional space between the pre and post pandemic worlds.  We are at that place where deep thinking and conscious choice come into play, but only if we allow it.  Amazingly, this week’s  Gospel speaks of the wealth of change that choice can bring.  John Chapter 14: 1-14 is alternately clear (“I am the way, the truth, and the life”), and mysterious (“I am in the father and the faher is in me”).  But the essential question is most evident: to believe or not to believe.  Jesus unveils the evidence, but he leaves the choice squarely in the hands of his audience.  Today, he speaks to the world in a time of panic and crisis, crumbling economies and failing systems.  But it is also a world of tender re-evaluation, of shared purpose and compliance, of new intiatives and beginnings.  Therein lies the divine spark, the interfacing of human and divine and the trust that there is something here worth visiting, exploring and investigating.  Jesus asks the same in the Gospel.  He is opening the door to the skeptical, creating different, personalized options for his audience, giving opportunities to see what is with greater depth and understanding.  In fact, He is suggesting that what we believe IS may have greater depth and breadth than we suspect.  His words, he says, are the Father’s; seeing Him is seeing the Father.  Then he raises that question:  How can looking not be really seeing?  Seeing not being understanding?

All of which brings us back to this moment in time: tentative reopenings, frightening models, divergence in reports, discord among us.  Uncertainties.  At the same time, an invitation to go forward, to see things differently.   Today, the Gospel meets us in this moment, and Jesus invites us to open eyes and ears and hearts to what is really happening here, to shape a greater good, a convergence of the divine and the human, a new beginning rooted in reality.   It is a chance to begin again with the knoweldge of what was resting against the knowledge of what can be.

To believe.  To begin.  To find the way, the truth and the life.  To be part of the Great Realization.

 

 

Like a Shepherd

Once we lived in a land of abundance: goods, opportunities, employment and possibility. With one swift blow, the coronavirus changed all that.  Suddenly, the voices we noticed, heard, responded to and questioned were different.  And as the days wore into weeks, we grew weary of the ambiguity, of those voices and then of each other.  And yet, we were adapting the entire time, adjusting to circumstance and need, practicing gratitude and empathy in ways we had not quite envisioned.  Somehow, we are becoming better than we were before.  This is the space we are walking in as May unfolds, and this is the week that we’re invited to hear a new voice, to see the real gate to the future.

The Gospel for Sunday, May 3, 2020, is  from John 10, and it shares Jesus’s description of himself as the  shepherd, the familiar voice, and then the gate.  He uses metaphors and opens the venue for choice, expresses the importance of response, of movement.  He is speaking still as we wander into this new culture born of the pandemic and he is waiting as we find our way, there as a visible gate.  But the Gospel bears the comforting thought that He is here, with us, and we are not navigating alone.  The presence of a God who invites action, defines purpose, and empowers in the midst of confusion and change is an overhwelming testimony to God’s love and concern for us.  It is there, in the ackowledgment of who we are, that Jesus is most present.  This is not a god demanding tribute or adherence; it is a god re-defining what it means to be truly human.  His faithfulness, his guidance, his gentleness and steadfastness stream through the words straight into open hearts.  He will not abandon us even if we abandon Him.  The shepherd’s strength is sourced in the humility of believing that every sheep matters.

That message speaks to our time with a vibrant hope.  We are re-discovering who we are and what we are about; in doing so, we must dare to re-discover the voice of Jesus calling out to us.  Listening, in this time of odd and awkward silences, is a tool of the heart and the soul.  It is about the way we choose to use our time, the way we begin to believe that there is something beyond what eye can perceive and ear can hear.  Listening demands space in this new world, to hear the heartbeat of what our lives have become and trust what our lives can be for one another. Listening strengthens the resolve to take action,  to locate the gate. And that means discerning the difference between the familiar and the strange.  Jesus leaves that task in our hands.  It requires work, exploration, discussion, decision-making; it is about openness and flexibility and relationships.

It would appear, then, that even in the midst of the foggy brains of lockdowns and quarantines, it is necessary to spare the time to work at understanding what is happening, and why, and how we can make a difference.  Jesus looks after us as a shepherd; the least we can do is look after one another in the same way.