Sunday, September 30, 2012

Dealing With One of Jesus' Hard Sayings



If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off...And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off...And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.” 

When I visited a parish in Chester, England about 15 years ago, they were in the midst of a series of sermons, given by lay preachers, called “The Hard Sayings of Jesus”.  I remember thinking how brave those folks were in tackling such a project.  It’s hard to preach on such a saying as Mark records in today’s Gospel, much less to understand what in the world Jesus is really trying to say to us! 
Paul Nuechterlein, who has served as senior pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Portage, MI, and is an expert on the ideas and theories of French historian, philosopher, and literary critic, René Girard, has a hunch that Jesus is actually employing some dark humor in the Gospel passages. There’s a terribly serious point which Jesus is making, to which we need to pay close attention.  But his use of dark humor to make the point should also alert us to keep that in perspective.  Just as a sidebar: one of the ideas which René Girard has developed is something called mimetic desireMimetic is related to the word mime or to imitate. The word desire is fairly understandable. So, mimetic desire would indicate that we imitate, we mime, the desiring of other people.
To understand how this connects to today’s Gospel (Mark 9:38-50), recall what Mark records in last Sunday’s Gospel: the disciples have a conversation on the way to Capernaum, about which Jesus confronts them later, only to find out that, as Mark says, “they had argued with one another who was the greatest...”  As you’ll remember, Jesus reminded them that the “greatest” needs to become “last of all and servant of all.”  In other words, Jesus reminds the disciples that many of our troubles arise from this very process of catching our desires from each other, learning to want the same things, and in the process, competing with one other, which generally leads to selfishiness and conflict, and even violence sometimes. Scripture uses the word covet, as in “You shall not covet your neighbor's things.” The focus is on our brothers/sisters, from whom we learn to desire.
Clergy often joke about a good sermon consisting of three points and a poem.  I’ll spare you the poem today, but  I will use an old Jules Pfeiffer cartoon to exemplify this idea of mimetic desire.  It starts with a high school student standing there, saying:  “Ever since I was a little kid, I didn't want to be me. I wanted to be Billy Wittleton. Billy Wittleton didn't even like me. I walked like he walked; I talked like he talked; I signed up for the high school he signed up for. Which was when Billy Wittleton changed. He began to hang around Herbie Vandeman. He walked like Herbie Vandeman; he talked like Herbie Vandeman. He mixed me up. I began to walk and talk like Billy Wittleton walking and talking like Herbie Vandeman. And then it dawned on me that Herbie Vandeman walked and talked like Joey Haverland. Joey Haverland walked and talked like Corky Savenson. So here I am walking and talking like Billy Wittleton's imitation of Herbie Vandeman's version of Joey Haverland's trying to walk and talk like Corky Savenson. And who do you think Corky Savenson is always walking and talking like? Of all people, dopey Kenny Wellington, that little pest who walks and talks like me.
This is an example of thinking that we can’t find anything desirable unless we crave what others demonstrate to us to be desirable. It’s the same principle which is at work in Genesis 3: the story of the man and woman and the serpent in the garden of Eden.  God tells the man and woman not to desire eating the tree in the middle of the garden, and they obey. But eventually, the fruit becomes more and more desirable, because the serpent shows the woman what to desire, and she, in turn, shows the man. Mimetic desire.
The Genesis story, however, is even more tragic. The most direct way to show the woman and man the desire would have been for the serpent to take a piece of the fruit himself, which the woman later actually does for the man, before handing it to him. The writer of Genesis, however, says that the serpent, the most subtle and crafty creature in the garden, makes the fruit desirable with a classic “Madison Avenue” technique: by “selling” the woman on believing that the most glamorous, powerful, trustworthy person in the world, namely God, finds the fruit desirable! “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God...” 
The tragedy here is that instead of keeping their hearts set on God, trusting that God would provide all that they need, the man and the woman begin to doubt God. “Is God maybe holding out on us?”  “Might God be keeping back the best fruit from us?” The man and woman now become rivals with God, competing with the Divine, and so they act on their desire. The result is that they can no longer remain with God in the Garden. As the story continues to play out, the ultimate fruit of their rivalry is an ongoing and growing resentment and anger, until one of their sons becomes a murderer. Brother kills brother. Resentment, anger, conflict, violence, death. It’s their story and the story of each one of us since then. Desire becomes distorted, and continually results in a repetitive process of rivalry, one-ups-man-ship, and eventually violence. Children catch it from their parents, and all end up stumbling and falling. 
Pastor Nuechterlein suspects that in today’s passage, Jesus is trying to take a somewhat humorous, perhaps even tongue-in-cheek, approach to these terrible images of hell fire, using an example of mimetic desire and rivalry. The disciples, who have previously struck out in their attempts to drive out demons, had come upon someone else who’d obviously had better luck at casting out demons in Jesus' name. That didn’t go down well with them at all: “...we tried to stop him...”  Obviously jealous and envious, they couldn’t stand the success of this other person “because he was not following us...

Nuechterlein envisions that the disciples’ reaction struck Jesus as so pathetic that he had to laugh!  Which could explain why Jesus continued by demonstrating what they were doing, but in a darkly humorous way: i.e., the stuff about making little ones stumble and having a millstone around your neck; about your hand or foot or eye making you stumble, so you cut it off. It’s definitely dark humor because it indicates how serious things really are. It helps us appreciate the seriousness involved in making a sister/brother stumble and fall; and even more so in sometimes setting examples as adults which lead our own children to stumble and fall. The consequences of all this stumbling into sin, Jesus hints, are the fires of violence. Mark’s Greek word, géenna, Gehenna, which we translate as hell, refers to the "valley of Hinnom", a place where, in ancient Israel, child sacrifice, the burning children on an altar, had been practiced. The fires of violence, Jesus hints, isn’t a place that God has created for us, but rather what we create for ourselves. The fire of our own human cravings and competitiveness and even violence, our desire and selfishness to have what others have, our willingness to do anything to get that, even if it means depriving another or cutting off another, or causing a brother/sister to stumble: that is the hell we create. Jesus says that we might as well cut off our hand or foot, or cut out our eye, if that's where we're going to end up, because that would be a more humane sacrifice than putting “one of these little ones” on an altar and burning them.

Could it also be that Jesus uses these words of dark humor, not to be taken literally but, perhaps with a grain of salt, so that he could offer us another way out, a totally different kind of sacrifice. Jesus, in dying on the cross, allows himself be cut off from us and from God, to be thrown into the sacrificial fires of our violence. Jesus trusted and hoped enough that God wouldn't let him stay cut off, and rightfully so. Jesus, one-d as he was in faith to God's self, became the way in which you and I could become reconnected, one-ed again with God.  "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned." (John 15:5-6)

Notice the same image for the consequences of not being connected with God through Jesus: being gathered up and thrown into the fires of our own violence. The Good News is that in being connected, one-ed, to the true vine who is Christ, we finally experience God's loving desire coming to fruition.  This is our way out of the stumbling block of our distorted mimetic desire, out of our passing this along to our children and to others.   

The great 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich, in her Revelations of Love, speaks eloquently about our human situation of constantly rising and falling, and of our being one-ed in Jesus by his great mercy.  Towards the end of her books she says:

If there is any such one alive on earth who is constantly kept from 
falling, I know it not, for it was not shown me.

But this was shown:
that whether in falling or in rising
we are ever preciously protected in one love.
In the sight of God we do not fall;
in the sight of self, we do not stand -- 
and both of these are true as I see it, but the way our Lord God 
sees it is the highest truth...

But our good Lord wills always that we see ourselves more from the 
point of view of the higher
(but not give up knowledge of the lower)
until the time that we are brought up above,
where we shall have our Lord Jesus for our reward,
and will be filled full of joy and bliss without end...




Sunday, September 23, 2012

Who Is Really "The Greatest"?


Fr. Daniel Harrington, a Catholic priest/professor at Boston College’s School for Theology and Ministry, has said: “When I hear about the sufferings of just people, I am challenged to reflect on their courage and to wonder how I would cope in such a situation.  But more important than my self-doubt is the recognition that I belong to a heroic people and a heroic tradition for which principle has often been more significant than any other consideration.  I am proud to stand in the tradition of...the anonymous just man of [the book of] Wisdom, Jesus, the early martyrs...and all those who suffer this day for their faith.” I’m not sure how comforting a message that is to us who, in fact, live in and are influenced by a largely non-believing, self-reliant American culture which espouses and promotes the principle: “Nice people finish last.”

The reading from Wisdom today (1:16-2:1; 12-22) spells out such a philosophy of life, which ultimately is one of death.  It details the contrast between fools, which Scriptural wisdom literature also calls “the wicked”, and the wise.  This is a favorite theme of the Psalms: the way of the foolish compared with the way of the righteous.  The fool’s orientation is to oneself and to one’s own preferences and pleasures.  

James, in the Epistle (3:13-4:3; 7-8a), dares to identify the source of such a way of life by the almost quaint phrase “your passions”, “your cravings”.  From the fool’s perspective, nice people always finish last because they don’t get the fact that the aim of life here is basically to have, to possess things: good and costly things; to feel good and to have fun, to endlessly pursue whatever “high” is available; and to be somebody important.  The weak, the wimp, the “righteous” person deserves to be pushed aside as irrelevant.  “...Let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.

Following Jesus the Christ, as he bids us, is a hazardous enterprise! A person who does that, you see, is “inconvenient”; she/he is a reproach, just by who she/he is, an obstacle, an accusation.  That kind of person is a constant reminder, a reproof, a burden “because his[/her] manner of life is unlike that of others, and his[/her] ways are strange.

St. James sets in contrast to such jealousy and selfish ambition the true image of one who is genuinely wise and righteous.  That one, he says, is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. In the Gospel (Mark 9:30-37) Jesus gives us an idea of what that might look like: “If anyone would be first, that one must be last of all and”, more than that, “servant of all.” (For “servant” Mark uses the Greek word diakonos literally = one who runs errands; is an attendant, a waiter.  We call that a “deacon”!) Jesus asks nothing more of you and me than he asks of himself: “I came not to be served, but to serve.”  

Then, unconcerned about rank or status, he does a truly counter-cultural thing by sitting down and gathering a small child into his arms.  In our culture a little child is, for the most part, irresistible, endearing, someone to whom we’re naturally drawn.  That wasn’t so in Jesus’ time.  Adults were consumed with earning honor, above all else.  Honor was a socially acknowledged claim to worth.  A grown person might do the ethically correct thing, but if he/she didn’t earn other people’s respect and honor, or wasn’t acknowledged for whatever reason, that person was a nobody.  There were various ways to earn honor: to show bravery, be a brilliant speaker, become a well-respected teacher, or give gifts away: in other words, buy your honor.  To serve others was considered the work of slaves.  When Jesus was later crucified, for example, that was considered not only an extreme loss of honor: it was the ultimate disgrace. Notice in the Gospel how Jesus catches the disciples off-guard as they arrive at Capernaum.  He  quizzes them on what they were wrangling about on the way there.  “Oh! That...!” Mark’s little aside to his readers blows their secret: “...they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest...

Getting back to the child, in the Greco-Roman world a child was utterly powerless, totally dependent, without legal rights, completely subject to the authority of the head of the household, lacking any social standing at all.  By his action Jesus says that the man or woman who welcomes and accepts an utterly defenseless person, one with no legal rights or claims to anyone’s compassion, one who can’t offer money, who has no prestige, privilege, and therefore power: that man or woman is truly righteous and wise before God.  And, in his book, “nice” people always finish first, because in welcoming the needy person, he/she welcomes Jesus as well as the Father who sent him.  That means much more than that it’s “nice” to stick up for the underdog.  What Jesus is really saying is that it’s exactly there where you take the risk of offering your compassion to a defenseless, powerless one that you will look into the eyes of Jesus himself.

But, you see, the fools and the unwise don’t get this, because their passions, their cravings get in the way. Why do people deliberately cheat and steal, and cause misery in millions of lives when the stock market crashes?? Why do people con others into drug or alcohol addiction or child prostitution, and into all the other miseries associated with that?? Because at the root of every one of these is a passion, a desire, a craving for what I want, when I want it, and how I want it, to put me before everyone else.  St. Augustine, himself a self-willed, long-time student in the school for selfishness, eloquently reflects on it all in his famous Confessions, written when he was between 43 and 46 years old, about thirty years before he died. His conclusion is this: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

In a society in which politicians can casually blow off almost half of a struggling population as worthless moochers, trying to convince “nice” people that, in emulating the kind of philosophy which Jesus taught, they’ll end up last, the Eucharist which we share convinces us otherwise.  When we celebrate together in Word and Sacrament, we learn through Jesus’ example of giving himself completely to us how to be servants, “deacons”. Through the challenging and strange irony of choosing to be last of all and servant of all for his sake, we find ourselves being “the greatest”: first in the lives of the ones we serve, in our own lives, and before God.  

   



Sunday, September 16, 2012

Chosen. Period.

Commenting on Mark’s Gospel (8:27-38), Tod O.L. Mundo offers this reflection:
Are we able to recognize the people through whom God is working in the world? God worked in the person of a tiny Yugoslavian nun ministering to the poor in Calcutta. God inspired a nominal member of the Nazi party in Germany to save the lives of 1,300 Jews in the heart of the Third Reich. God sent a German doctor, religion scholar, and musician to set up hospitals in the heart of Africa. God inspired former slaves and other abolitionists to set up the underground railroad to help Southern slaves reach the freedom of the North. There are many, many others who are not as well-known who have also obeyed the voice of God and transformed the world around them. Peter recognized in Jesus a man who was more than just a prophet, someone who had been anointed by God. But despite his discernment of God's guidance, he was unprepared for the full mission of Jesus. ‘What do you mean you have to die? That's crazy!’ Peter saw God at work, and rather than fall in step with God's divine plan, he succumbed to the temptation to try to manipulate God's will to match his own. Perhaps Peter dreamed of a revived nation of Israel, free from the Romans...’You don't understand,’ Jesus said. ‘Following me is not about what you get, it's about what you give.’ ...Jesus told his followers they would have to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him. Because of Jesus' death on the cross, the image of the cross has been central to Christian theology from the very beginning of the church, but imagine the impact Jesus' statement would have had on people prior to his crucifixion. "What did he mean," the disciples might have asked one another, 'take up your cross'? Surely he was speaking metaphorically!’ Well, yes and no. Jesus was speaking of a life of self-sacrifice, a life of service, a life of demonstrating mercy, and these are all figurative examples of taking up one's cross. According to church tradition, however, all the original disciples, except for John (and Judas Iscariot), suffered violent deaths on behalf of the faith, many on crosses, so the metaphorical sometimes became literal. If following Jesus has the potential for such pain, what are the rewards? ‘Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ There is no life that is more meaningful than one that is dedicated to God and to doing God's will. What God did through Mother Teresa, Oskar Schindler, Albert Schweitzer, and Harriet Tubman, God is doing today through many people around the world. Do we have the discernment to recognize God at work? Do we have the courage to join the struggle to bring about the kingdom of God?” (Tod O. L. Mundo, The Saturday Night Theologian, 2009)
Isaiah’s passage (50:4-9a), the third of the so-called Songs of the Suffering Servant of God, might better be seen as the “Servant’s Song of Confidence in God”: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word...he wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” Living a life dedicated to “the struggle to bring about the kingdom of God” begins first with recognizing that God has chosen me, then freely opening myself and allowing myself to be taught, shaped, formed as God wants, enabling me to speak words, which, sustained by God, lead to actions touching the lives of another for good. 
This is a passage, along with today’s other Scriptures, about one called to be God’s disciple, about the spirit in which one answers that call, and about what it is which enables one to follow through and do what God asks. It’s a statement, really, about faith, an unshakeable setting of one’s heart on God who alone is the Sustainer and Enabler of everything we say and do. Such faith is persistent, radical and obedient. It’s belief which sets God, like an unmovable rock, at the center of one’s life; which brings us to sit at Jesus’ feet and let ourselves be taught; a faith willing to stand with Jesus, in his power alone, when the confrontation, contention, and shame come, as surely they will to ever true servant of God.
James, in the second reading (3:1-12), makes us aware of the difficulty of being chosen servants of God, and just how fragile our faith can be. Perhaps our greatest struggle is carrying out what we pray for in the Prayer after Communion in Holy Eucharist, Rite II: “Send us...into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.”  James cautions us of the dangers of double-mindedness.
He impresses on us the tremendous responsibility of being given “the tongue of a teacher... to sustain the weary with a word”. He acknowledges that all of us make mistakes, that it’s a rare person who can control “the whole body”, particularly by the human tongue. He uses several images of guidance: mouth bits and bridles to guide horses; and small rudders navigating large ships through strong winds.
The tongue, it seems, though a small member, has immense power: for good, certainly, but also for immense evil and harm. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell...no one can tame the tongue -- a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” With the same organ of speech we bless and praise the living God, and with the very same tongue we disrespect, demean, even, at times, curse our sisters or brothers who are made in God’s image and likeness! This election season 2012 is probably the ideal time to tune in and experience the reality of what James means! And we all stand at least somewhat guilty, I suspect. “My brothers and sisters,” James says, “this ought not to be so.
In the Baptismal Covenant, which we repeat several times a year, we give our pledge to believe in God the Father, in Jesus Christ, and in God the Holy Spirit. We commit ourselves anew each time to “persevere in resisting evil...[to] repent and return to the Lord”. We promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons”, no exceptions, just as we do for ourselves; to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”. If we’re serious about this Covenant, we understand that what we’ve been chosen for by Christ is to do exactly what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel: set aside our own preferences, take up the cross which falls to our lot every day, and follow Jesus in trust, wherever he leads us. In a symbolic, but very real way, we agree to lose our life for Jesus‘ sake and the sake of the Gospel, in order to possess the fulness of life which he offers us. “...who do you say that I am?” and “what are you willing to do?” in light of that.
In a similar, though no less real way than the Servant of God in Isaiah and the disciples in the Gospel, you and I have been chosen in Baptism to be God’s faithful servants, taught of God that we “may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” It may be, probably is, uncomfortable for us. We may even resent it, fight it, pretend that it’s not true, or run away from it. It doesn’t matter. You and I are chosen. Samuel K. Davis puts it this way:
Think your way back now,
to when you were no longer little,
and not yet grown up -- 
  to when you were in between.

Time after time,
back then,
you heard that word
choose.
  Choose partners --
  Choose captains --
  Choose up sides.

Sooner or later
that innocent little word
  became painful
  and humiliating.

Remember not being chosen?

-- or being chosen last?
  Everyone waited
  for the other side
  to take you first.

Everyone politely
  pretended
  that it didn’t matter.
  But there was a
  certainty
  in your heart
  that it did.

They were picked;
you weren’t;
  and that mattered
  and that hurt.

The story of Jesus
says something very simple.
  It says
  the simplest,
  plainest,
  clearest thing 
  that anyone can ever say
  or ever hear.

It says
you are chosen.

 Now and always,
  whoever you are,
  whatever you are like,
  wherever you go.
  You are chosen.

Not chosen
Instead of someone else,
or in front of someone else.
  And not chosen
  because you are better
  or stronger
  or wiser.

You are simply
  chosen, 
  period.
  
  
    




Saturday, September 15, 2012

Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows



Today I ran across this wonderfully fresh translation of the hymn Stabat Mater. A notable number of scholars point to Jacapone da Todi as author, since two 14th century codices and the 1495 edition of the sequence attribute the hymn's authorship to him. The composition's general tone and sensitivity undeniably parallel that of da Todi's poems, yet strictly stylistic comparisons yield uncertain and even disputable results. Recent scholars L. Russo and M. Cassella aren't convinced by the arguments in favor of Jacopone's authorship. The Stabat Mater has two qualities that most scholars date from the 12th century: an intricate rhyme scheme and a regular meter (usually trochaic). The translation, done by Dr. Tom Barber in 2010, appears on:


His Mother Wept 

His mother wept. She stood 
beside the cross. Upon its wood 
hung the body of her Son.  

Her spirit moaned 
with sadness, pained 
and punctured. 

How grieved and lost, 
and yet how blessed, 
childless and alone 

In sadness, 
trembling, witness 
to His despair. 

Who would not ache 
to see such pain? 
Christ’s mother – 

Imagine any mother – 
the loss of any other 
mother’s love… 

She beheld his torment, 
Punishment – 
for us, for sins. There 

She stayed. She was there 
in that place where 
he gave his spirit up. 

Mother, source of love, 
join me when I grieve – 
mourn with me. 

Make my heart strong 
in love of Christ. I long 
to please. 

Holy Mother, help me understand 
the meaning of the wounds. 
Help me to believe 

All injuries, 
all penalties 
are His, for me. 

Let me ever share 
the weight you bear, 
the crucifixion. 

Let me also stand 
beside the cross, in 
witness to His passion. 

Woman among women, 
mother, also virgin, 
please be kind. 

Let me also know His death, 
hear with you his parting breath, 
healed, no longer blind. 

Scales lifted from my eyes, 
mind open, alive 
for His love’s sake. 

Spread light, sow love, 
Virgin, lift me up 
in my last days. 

Let the cross protect 
by faith, in life and death, 
with grace. 

And when my body dies 
grant me paradise! 
A new beginning, not an end. 

Amen. 

Amen forever, Amen.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Dream of the Rood


1 Lo! I will tell of the best of dreams, what I dreamed in the middle of the night, after the speech-bearers were in bed. It seemed to me that I saw a very wondrous tree 
5 lifted into the air, enveloped by light, the brightest of trees. That beacon was all covered with gold. Gems stood beautiful at the surface of the earth, there were five also up on the central joint of the cross. All those fair through eternal decree gazed 
10 [on] the angel of the Lord. [It] was certainly not a wicked person’s gallows there, but holy spirits, men over the earth, and all this famous creation gazed on him. Wondrous was that tree of victory, and I stained with sins wounded sorely with defects, I saw the tree of glory, 
15 honoured with garments, shining joyously, adorned with gold. Gems had splendidly covered the Lord’s tree. I was able, however, to perceive through the gold, the ancient hostility of wretched ones, [that] it first began 
20 to bleed on the right side. I was all troubled with grief, I was afraid in the presence of that beautiful sight. I saw that noble beacon change its coverings and colour; sometimes it was drenched with moisture, soaked with the flow of blood, sometimes adorned with treasure. Nevertheless, I, lying a long time there, 
25 gazed troubled at the Saviour’s tree, until I heard it speak. The most excellent tree then began to speak the words: It was years ago (that, I still remember), that I was cut down from the edge of the forest, 
30 removed from my foundation. Strong enemies seized me there, they made me into a spectacle for themselves, commanded me to lift up their criminals. Men carried me there on their shoulders, until they set me on a hill, many enemies secured me there. Then I saw mankind’s Lord hasten with great zeal, that he wished to climb upon me. 
35 There, I did not dare break to pieces or bow down against the Lord’s words, when I saw the surface of the earth tremble. I was able to destroy all the enemies, nevertheless, I stood firmly. The young hero stripped himself then (that was God Almighty), 
40 strong and resolute. He ascended onto the high gallows, brave in the sight of many, there, [since] he wished to release mankind. I trembled when the man embraced me. However, I dared not bow down to the earth, fall to the surface of the earth, but I had to stand fast. I was raised [as a] cross. I lifted up the mighty king, 
45 the lord of the heavens; I dared not bend down. They pierced me with dark nails. On me, the scars are visible, open malicious wounds. I did not dare injure any of them. They mocked both of us, together. I was all drenched with blood, covered from the man’s side, after he had sent forth his spirit. 50 I endured many cruel events on that hill. I saw the Lord of Hosts severely stretched out. Darkness had covered the bright radiance of the Lord’s corpse with clouds, a shadow went forth, 
55 dark under the sky. All of creation wept, they lamented the king’s death. Christ was on the cross. Nevertheless, eager ones came there from afar to the prince. I beheld all that. Grievously I was afflicted with sorrow, yet I bowed to the hands of the men, 
60 humble, with great zeal. There they took God Almighty, they lifted him up out of the oppressive torment. The warriors abandoned me to stand, covered with moisture; I was wounded very badly with arrows. They laid him down there, weary-limbed; they positioned themselves at his body’s head, there they gazed at the Lord of heaven, and he, rested himself there for a while, 
65 weary after the great battle. The men began to make a sepulcher for him in the sight of his slayer; they carved it out of bright stone; they put him, the Lord of Victories, therein. The wretched began to sing him a song of sorrow in the evening-time, then they wanted to go again, wearily from the glorious prince. He rested there with little company. 
70 Nevertheless, we stood in a fixed position, weeping for a good while, after the voice of the warriors went up. The corpse cooled, beautiful dwelling of the soul. Then they began to cut us all down to the earth. That was a dreadful event! 
75 We were buried in a deep pit. However, the Lord’s disciples, friends, discovered me there, and adorned me [with] gold and silver. Now you can hear, my beloved hero, what work of the evildoers that I have experienced, 
80 the painful grief. The time is now come that men over the earth and all this illustrious creation far and wide honour me, they pray to this sign. On me, God’s son suffered a time. Therefore, now I rise up 85 glorious under the heavens, and I am able to heal each one of those who hold me in awe. Formerly, I was the most fierce of torments, most hateful to people, before I opened the right path of life to them, the speech-bearers. 
90 Lo, the prince of glory, the guardian of the kingdom of the heavens, honoured me over all the trees of the forest! Just as he, Almighty God, before all men, honoured his mother also, Mary herself, over all womankind. 
95 Now I command you, my beloved warrior, that you tell this vision to men, reveal in words that it is the tree of glory, on which Almighty God suffered for mankind’s many sins 
100 and Adam’s deeds of old, He tasted death there. However, the Lord arose again to help men with his great power. Then he ascended into the heavens. Hither again, the Lord, Himself, will set out into this world 
105 to seek mankind on the day of judgement, Almighty God and His angels with Him, since He who has power of judgement, He then will sentence each one, just as he shall have earned for himself here in this temporary life. 
110 Nor can there be any unafraid there because of the words which the Lord shall say: He shall ask before the multitude, where the man might be, who for the name of the Lord would taste bitter death, as He did before on the cross. 
115 But then they fear, and few think of what to begin to say to Christ. None needs to be afraid [of] of [he] who already bears on his breast the best of signs, but through the cross, each soul must seek 
120 the kingdom from the earthly way, those who intend to dwell with the Lord. Then I prayed to the cross with friendly spirit, with great zeal, where I was alone with little company. My mind was 
125 impelled on the way hence, it experienced very many times of longing. Now this is my life’s joyous expectation that I may seek the tree of victory and honour [it] well most often of all men. The desire for that is 
130 great in my heart, and my patronage is directed to the cross. I do not have many powerful friends on earth, since they departed away hence from the joys of the world, they sought the King of Glory; now they live in the heavens with God the Father. 
135 They dwell in glory, and each day I look forward to the time when the cross of the Lord that I previously saw here on the earth, in this temporary life, will fetch me, and will then bring me to where great bliss is, 
140 joy in the heavens, where the Lord’s people are seated at the feast, where perpetual joy is; then it may set me, where afterwards I might dwell in glory, with the saints to enjoy bliss well. May the Lord be a friend to me, 
145 who suffered here on earth before on the gallows-tree for men’s sins; he redeemed us and gave us life, a heavenly home. Joy was restored with blessings and with bliss, for those who endured the fire there. 
150 The Son was triumphant on that expedition, mighty and successful, when he came with the multitude, the host of souls, into God’s kingdom, the Lord Almighty, to the delight of the angels, and of all the saints, who in the heavens before 
155 dwelled in glory, when their Ruler, the Almighty God came, where his homeland was.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Great American Bishop: John Henry Hobart (1775-1830)


  1. Revive your Church, Lord God of hosts, whenever it falls into complacency and sloth, 
    by raising up devoted leaders, like your servant John Henry Hobart whom we remember today; and grant that their faith and vigor of mind may awaken your people to your message 
    and their mission; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you 
    and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Releasing the Fear

(Linocut by Robert Hodgell, ca. 1960's)


Today’s Scriptures are especially rich, thought-provoking, and relevant to the times in which we’re living, but  I’m going to simply concentrate on the second Gospel story here.

Bishop Fred Borsch tells a powerful story in his book, Power in Weakness: New Hearing for Gospel Stories of Healing and Discipleship (Fortress Press, 1983, pp. 5-6):

I know a man who began to appear from time to time at public functions of the theological seminary where I once taught. In part he seemed attracted to the school because of the newspapers and the library. Maybe he came because other people were there, although for many months he showed no interest in them. He often behaved strangely. There was a haunting aura about him and a warning glare from his eyes should he look up. His lower jaw would move a little menacingly. They said he was on drugs. People would actually back away from him. Some wanted to have him arrested.

He would not speak to me even when I spoke to him. Once or twice I caught him sitting down and sat opposite him and asked a few questions. He would not or could not respond. It was hard not to feel annoyed as well as frustrated, perhaps a little angry. His very presence was a bother and a disturbance. One wished he would just disappear as he had come. Dressed in his ill-fitting and unkempt clothes taken from boxes for cast-offs, he appeared to be making the school furniture dirty just by being there.

Although he seemed from time to time to mumble to himself, I never saw him talk to anyone. I was not able, in my sporadic efforts, even to hold his glance. I began to realize that he was very frightened, though he also had the cunning and daring of a beggar.

I thought once or twice about trying to touch him. For a sick, troubled, or despondent person, a touching hand from a pastor or friend can often be a great gift -- even life-saving in a sense. We realize that from someone like...this man who had appeared at the seminary, or for the elderly in convalescent homes, it may have been a very long time since they were touched by anyone in care and love. They may see themselves as untouchable as well as unlovable. A hand on theirs tells them otherwise. Physical contact establishes a relationship -- also when it is a reaching from the sick person to the one wanting to help -- through which the power of caring can flow. But I was not able to reach out my hand to him.

Some of the students called him “Shovel-Mouth” -- not to his face, mind you, though I suspect he knew that they spoke mockingly of his behavior. They gave him this name because of his propensity for showing up  at almost every school function where free food was involved, and sometimes when it was not free. On those occasions he ate with great intensity -- huge amounts of food -- never speaking or looking at anyone.

I am sure I could have tried harder, but it is not easy to continue after such rebuffs. I could have believed that he was without the power of speech -- except that one of the students, by a great effort, had gradually established a form of relationship with him. Eventually she was able to learn his name and something of his background and circumstances. She helped me and others to begin to see the one we knew only as “Shovel-Mouth” as a person.

Encouraged by her example, I tried again. He was shuffling up the street as I was unpacking the back of my car after the Christmas holidays. I do not think he saw me until he was almost even with the car. ‘Happy New Year, Tom!’ I called out. He looked up, surprised. ‘Yes,’ he mumbled, ‘thank you.’ For a flickering moment I also read some form of genuine communication in his eyes. I cannot even tell for sure what it was, only that it was something I had never seen in him before.

The story of Tom does not have any clear denouement. He still does not easily maintain a conversation, and he continues to have his problems. But he learned to talk again, with me and others. Several students try to see that he receives some decent meals. On good days he can sit and share pleasantly with them. He obviously enjoys talking with children. They come to greet him. No one is afraid. 

This story seems to speak of fear, a fear which led Tom to shut down in communicating.  For whatever reason that it occurred, it’d been a long time since anyone had touched him, inwardly or outwardly, with any kind of care and love.

  1. Barrie Shepherd writes:
When all
is said and done
there’s not much wrong 
with fear.

The problem lies instead with
what we fear
and why.

Have you ever asked yourself: “How much of my life is spent in fear”??
  • fear of the unknown or unfamiliar
  • fear that I need to change
  • fear of saying what I really think or mean, perhaps to my spouse or son/daughter; fear that they’ll reject me for it
  • fear of burdening my family or friends, fear of “imposing” on them
  • fear of sharing a problem with someone else who could probably help
  • fear of people who differ from me, who have ideas/beliefs/values/opinions which aren’t like mine; or whose approach to faith or spirituality bears no similarity to my practice.
At one time or another, most all of us have had some kind of fear.  We know that it locks us up inside, makes us as deaf and mute as the man in the Gospel who was brought to Jesus.  You could say that we become inwardly blind/deaf/lame/dumb, and find ourselves impoverished, sterile, “dead”. The tragedy is that a person can go on living that way for years, out of fear, adapting as best as one can.  Some folks, unfortunately, endure that way for a lifetime, cheated of so much richness, blessedness and joy.

Only when we can learn to be open enough to allow ourselves to be touched by God’s and/or another’s care and love, like “Shovel-Mouth” or Mark’s deaf-mute, and also to reach out to touch others who are in a situation like our own, do the words of Isaiah in the first reading (35:4-7a) begin to make any sense: “Say to those whose hearts are frightened, ‘Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, He comes...With divine recompense he comes to save you.

For Isaiah God is the One who touches us in love.  The people of Israel were, indeed, a chosen people, but chosen simply because God chose to love them, despite their fears and inadequacies.  So any hope which Israel had, as she did through long centuries and much fearfulness, is grounded in God.

The idea that God is the only reason for the people’s hope has powerful implications, for it makes clear that our hope isn’t dependent on our “performance”, or power, or knowledge, or wealth, or anything for lack of which we might fear being rejected by others.  It’s the caring, loving touch of God, experienced primarily through the loving touch of another, which can set us free.  Blind eyes open; deaf ears become unstopped; lame people can leap and jump again; and dumb tongues joyously break out into words and song.  Isaiah uses the image of a cloudburst, flooding the wilderness.  Or it’s like arid, dry ground suddenly bubbling up with springs and pools.

The deaf-mute of the Gospel (Mark 7:24-37) experienced that in his body and soul, through Jesus’ reaching out to him.  Mark doesn’t tell us how long the man had had his impediments, but imagine the man’s feelings as people push him forward towards Jesus, this healer, and as Jesus takes him aside.  It was common for healers of that day to use rituals such as Jesus used: putting fingers into the ears, using saliva to touch the tongue.  As Jesus does this he raises his eyes and sighs: a sort of outward, audible symbol of the inner release about to follow, then says, “Ephphata”, “Be opened”.

And the man’s ears were opened and his tongue released.  The fear left him.  His whole body and, indeed, his life had been unlocked.  The people recognize Jesus as the Holy One, the One who, as Isaiah had predicted, makes deaf persons hear and dumb ones speak.  God, through Jesus, is again the ground and reason for hope and release of God’s chosen ones.

Realistically, as with Bishop Borsch’s experience in trying to reach out to “Shovel-Mouth” who struggled with his fears, we too may not find, in our reaching out to others, any clear resolution.  In fact we ourselves may be the ones who continue to struggle with our own fears and with allowing ourselves to be ministered to.  But we may also, and, by God’s grace, probably will, have those flickering moments when some connection is made, when, even though we don’t know what it is, we experience something which we’d never seen in others or ourselves before, when our inner ears are opened and our tongue is released. 

Be strong, fear not!...He will come and save you.



Saturday, September 8, 2012

John Howard Griffin (1920-1980)

"Future historians will be mystified that generations of us could stand in the midst of this sickness and never see it." (John Howard Griffin)

Today is the 32nd anniversary of the death of John Howard Griffin, a remarkable man who dedicated most of his life to help bring about racial equality in the U.S. He published a book, Black Like Me, published in 1961. 

In the fall of 1959, Griffin decided to investigate first-hand how life was for African-Americans in the South. He consulted a dermatologist in New Orleans, who prescribed a course of drugs, sunlamp treatments, and skin creams to darken the color of his skin. Griffin shaved his head to get rid of his straight hair. He spent weeks travelling as a black man in New Orleans and parts of Mississippi, with side trips to South Carolina and Georgia, mainly traveling bus and hitch-hiking. In his book Griffin describes in detail what African Americans were encountering in the Deep South at that time, just to have access to such simple things as food, shelter, and toilet facilities. He recounted the hatred which he often felt from white Southerners on a day-to-day basis: from store clerks, ticket sellers, bus drivers, etc. He tells how amazed he was by the curiosity which white men displayed about his sexual life, and he recounted anecdotes about some white Southerners' friendliness and helpfulness.
In the fall of 1967, when I was serving as chaplain and instructor at Sacred Heart College [now Newman University], Wichita, KS, Mr. Griffin was slated as one of the speakers at a human relations conference sponsored by the college. This was at a time when racial tensions all over the U.S. were very high, no less so in Wichita. At the conference's sessions I experienced, perhaps for the first time in such a penetrating way, some of the deep frustration and anguish of many young black men because of the societal barriers they encountered. The conference organizers had invited a group of young men who were involved in street gangs within the city, as well as several notable leaders in Wichita's African-American community. The real differences and divisions even within that group were obvious and palpable. Though displaying some obvious, and understandable, "attitude" in their presentations, the young gang members surely conveyed an important, almost desperate message: a message which, in my opinion, is as much or more valid and desperate today for many young people of whatever race or color.


I was quite taken aback at the response of one African-American, considered a prominent leader and advocate of racial equality in the Wichita community. When the question was raised about what might happen if and when the black community's frustration and anger might spill over into forceful demonstrations, the leader blatantly admitted that he had a personal refuge all ready in the country to which he would head if trouble began. It bothered me that, given his reputation for the cause, he would be so unwilling to stand with his people.


When Mr. Griffin arrived on campus for his talk, I was asked to transport him to and from the auditorium. He was still having trouble at that time with his eyesight and with difficulty in walking for any extended time. It was such an honor just to meet him, as well as to have a brief chance, at least, to speak with him about his experiences and his friendship with my idol, Thomas Merton. Because it was so long ago, I don't recall all the details of our discussion, but I do remember that it was one of the few times in my life when I felt as if I were in the presence of a truly great person. 


John Howard Griffin was a Texan, born in Dallas. His mother, Lena, was a classical pianist, and Griffin acquired a love of music from her. He was awarded a musical scholarship, and studied French and literature at the University of Poitiers, as well as medicine at the École de Médecine. At age 19, he worked as a medic in the French Resistance at the Atlantic seaport of Saint-Nazaire, and helped smuggle Austrian Jews to safety and freedom. 


Griffin served a little over three years in the U.S. Army Air Corps, stationed in the South Pacific. He spent 1943-44 as the only Caucasian on Nuni, one of the Solomon Islands, assigned to study the local culture, where he also married an island woman. He was later decorated for bravery. 


Left blind by an accident in 1946 in the Air Force, he came home to Texas, where he converted to Catholicism in 1952, became a lay Carmelite, and taught piano. In 1953, having obtained a dissolution of his first marriage from the Vatican, he married Elizabeth Ann Holland, with whom he raised four children. In 1957 Griffin rather miraculously regained his eyesight and became an accomplished photographic artist. In his lifetime Griffin wrote 13 books. He'd been designated by Thomas Merton's estate to write Merton's biography, but he was never able to complete the project. The nearly finished portion, dealing with Merton's later years, was published as Follow the Ecstasy: Thomas Merton, The Hermitage Years, 1965-1968 three years after Griffin's death on September 8, 1980. I'm terribly grateful to have had the privilege of meeting both of these men. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Remembering Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (d. 9/5/1997)


"We are not social workers, but
contemplatives in the heart of the world.
For we are touching the body of Christ
24 hours a day."

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Blessed Labor Day



Creator of all, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for ourselves alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and move us to advocate for those who are out of work. Amen.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

"Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall..."

You’re all probably familiar with the old German fairy tale, Schneewittchen und die sieben Zwerge, or Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs, collected and popularized by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, and the subject of many other narrative versions, films, TV shows, musical compositions, and even video games. It depicts a Queen who, while sewing at her window, pricks her finger with the needle, spilling three drops of blood onto the snow-laden ebony window frame. Looking upon them, the Queen expresses, aloud, the wish that she might have a daughter with skin as white as snow, with lips as red as blood, and with hair as black as ebony. And she does have such a daughter, made-to-order, whom she and her husband name Snow White. Unfortunately, the Queen dies soon after. The King remarries. His new Queen is very beautiful, but also very, very vain. She daily consults her magical mirror, asking: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” To which the mirror invariably replies: “You, my Queen, are fairest of all.” Predictably, Snow White grows to become more beautiful than the Queen, which the mirror isn’t shy about admitting, which sets up a long and interesting conflict between the two women.

St. James, in today’s second reading uses a mirror analogy, noting that, if any are followers of Jesus, i.e., “hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” (1:23-24) Then, in an inspired statement, he says that “those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act -- they will be blessed in their doing...” (1:25)

Adele Stiles Resmer, Assistant to the bishop & Minister for Community & Mission in the Grand Canyon Synod, ELCA, suggests that, as we gaze at ourselves in the mirror of today’s Scripture readings, we try “...to hold these two realities together: the gifts of God that create the people of God; and the responses of God's people to these wonderful, life-giving gifts that continue to shape them into the people of God.” 

THE GIFTS OF GOD

In the first reading Moses instructs the people to “give heed to...to observe” the statutes and ordinances of the Almighty, which you and I recognize as the 10 Commandments, literally, the Ten Words, in Hebrew, or the Law. He gives three good reasons for this: 1) “so that [they] may live” as God’s people throughout successive generations, 2) that they may enter and occupy the Promised Land and thus become God’s faithful and compassionate people, and 3) that they may, both in their relationship with God and one another, become a wise and discerning community: a model for the surrounding nations. “For what other great nation has a God so near to it as the Lord our God is?...And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law?...” (4:7-8) 

For the Hebrew the word for law, torah meant “precept, statute, law”, but not in the strictly juridical sense in which we use those terms. The root of torah is yara, meaning to flow (as water); to lay, throw or shoot (as an arrow); to point out or teach (as if by aiming the finger). It has a relational flavor, which characterizes the Covenant by which God formed a people of God’s own, in which the people pledged to be faithful to the “statutes and ordinances” in response to God’s pledge of continual gracious and loving care of them in every way. The keeping of the Covenant on God’s part, of course, was never in doubt. The people , however, periodically needed to gauge how they were doing by looking into the mirror of God’s Covenant, for “this will show your wisdom and discernment”, as Moses says, or not, as was demonstrated over and over in their long history!

James, in the Epistle, identifies “every generous act of giving,...every perfect gift”, the chief of which was the Covenant, the Law, as coming “from above, coming down from the [unchangeable] Father of lights”. (1:17) He says that we are “a kind of first fruits”, first of the Mosaic Covenant of love, and then of the Law of Christ, in Jesus who is the Word of truth, “the implanted word that has the power to save our souls”. (1:21) That, of course, depends on our willingness to let ourselves be shaped by that gift from God in order to “produce God’s righteousness”, even as Moses cautioned that it did so for the people of Israel. If we learn from Jesus the Master how to, in James’ words, “be quick to listen, slow to speak”, rather than to simply drift through our daily living by becoming forgetful hearers when we look into the mirror, then we’ll come to recognize what James calls “the perfect law, the law of liberty”, or as Paul says in Romans, “the freedom of the glory of the children of God”. (8:21) The image is of the community of God’s people running amok, like little children, in the reign of God with all the exuberance of God’s joy and love and righteousness!

THE RESPONSES OF GOD’S PEOPLE TO GOD’S GIFTS

The writer of Deuteronomy indicates what should be the first response of the people of God to God’s gift of the Covenant: “You must neither add anything...nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord...You must observe them diligently...” (4:2 & 6) The “keeping” or “doing” of the Law is spelled out in a way of living which helps shape the people as a community of love in relation to God and to each other: care and watchfulness; not forgetting, not treating casually what they’ve come to know; passing their knowledge on to future generations. (Dt 4:9) 

Psalm 15 reminds the people that only those can be in genuine relation to the Most High who do the right thing and speak the heart’s truth (v. 2); who “do no evil to their friends” (v. 3); who stand by their commitments, even if it means personal inconvenience, hurt or loss (v. 4); who are honest and refuse to take advantage of others (v. 5)

James considers a community to be truly grateful for and responsive to being shaped by God’s law of love when it refrains from anger and from sordid and rank behavior, when it bridles the tongue, when it cares for the disadvantaged, especially those most vulnerable, such as orphans and widows, and when it keeps itself “unstained by the world”. 

Mark, in his Gospel (7:1-8; 14-15), relates a scene which graphically ties together all the elements we’ve just been considering. Central to it are “the [Jerusalem] Pharisees and some of the scribes”. Their name in Hebrew is perusim = the separate or separated ones, the separators, i.e., the distinguishers and expositors of the Law. They were laymen, in contrast the Sadducees who were a priestly party. Heirs of the priest and scribe, Ezra, mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, rather than of the prophets, the Pharisees viewed Judaism as a religion, as well as a theocracy, centered upon the Law as handed down by Moses, and they interpreted the Law’s obligations most severely, mainly as prescriptions to be kept, rather than a way of living. In addition to God’s Law, they clung to oral traditions which, they said, came down through a chain of elders which they could trace all the way back to Moses. The Pharisees saw these oral traditions as a sort of fence around the Law, protecting it from any violations, which could be assured only by the exact observance, to the letter, of these human traditions.     

The Pharisees’ closest alliance was with the scribes: the teachers and interpreters of the Law. They disregarded and opposed the “people of the land”, what you might call the “Jewish 99%”, because they believed them to be ignorant folks who neither knew nor cared about the finer points of the Mosaic Law. Outside the New Testament, we only know of the Pharisees through two sources: 1) the Jewish historian, Josephus, and 2) from a few comments in the Talmud, the collection of writings by the Jewish rabbis which was itself strongly Pharisaic in origin. Interestingly, the Talmud singles out the same faults in the Pharisees as Jesus does in the Christian Scriptures! Jesus, of course, came as God’s Holy One, the Word of truth, to save all humankind, not just the select guardians of the Mosaic Law. He especially identified with the “people of the land”. Understandably, he and the Pharisees are at loggerheads from the very beginning of the four Gospel accounts. 

In the Gospel a band of Pharisees and scribes come up from Jerusalem to Gennesaret, on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee, to harass Jesus. The issue this time is the fact that some of Jesus’ disciples, whether through bad upbringing, bad hygiene, or just forgetfulness, “were eating with defiled hands... without washing them”. Mark makes it abundantly clear that, indeed, it was the Jewish custom to thoroughly wash the hands before mealtimes, as well any food from the market, and various “cups, pots, and bronze kettles”, etc.,  but he adds “...thus observing the tradition of the elders”, not the Mosaic Law. By this time in the history of God’s people, it’s clear that the Pharisees, by their own human interpretations, had both added to and taken away things from the Law, contrary to what Moses insists on in the Deuteronomy reading. Jesus calls them on this in no uncertain terms, although it’s unfortunate that the RCL chose not to include perhaps the most telling verses, 9-13, in the reading. Jesus’ pointed reply to his critics, in effect, forces them to look into the mirror of the Mosaic Covenant, God’s gift of love, whose purpose was to enable the people to live wisely and well, and thus to be shaped into a loving, serving community. What they saw in that mirror was the exact opposite: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition”, Jesus says. In the omitted vv. 9-13, he continues: “For Moses said: ‘Give due right to your father and mother’; and: ‘Let him who speaks rudely to his father or mother be put to death.’ But you say: ‘If a man says to his father or his mother: Whatever I owe you is Corban, which means ‘gift to God’, then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother, making void the word of God through that tradition which you hand down. And you do many other things of such a nature as this...

Jesus also flings in their face the teaching of God’s prophet, Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the most righteous of us all?” “Certainly not you Pharisees”, Jesus would say. 

I don’t believe that even Jesus considered the Pharisees all bad. According to the standards which they’d inherited down through thousands of generations, I’m guessing that they had glimpses of true Covenant religion, that they were more mistaken than evil. Yet, in reality, they caused a lot of harm for a lot of people. And Jesus expected them to be accountable.

It’s a timely warning for all us well-intentioned religious folks, who, just as the Pharisees, often look into our own mirrors and see something other than “the perfect law of liberty”. We make assumptions; we draw conclusions for ourselves, sincerely perhaps, and often try to pass them off as God’s law, rather than our own selfish willfulness. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the externals of religion, the “packaging”, that we neglect what really counts: the inner disposition and attitude of humble faith and gratitude for God’s gifts of love, and the selflessness and openness of letting God shape us, as God wants, into a community of dedicated caring and compassion.

I hope that you and I, when we look into our “mirror, mirror, on the wall”, will see reflected, instead, “the Lord our God” who is so near to us that you and I will actually resemble that God. And our mirror might even say to us: “You, O people of God, are the luckiest, the most blessed ones of all!” 

Who knows? Perhaps the mirror might look something like this one: