Orbiting Dicta

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14th Sunday of the Year: The Burden is Light

Most of the world is still coping, well or badly, with the “Covid Crisis,” now in its seventh month and far from over. But many otherwise healthy people are suffering from “Covid Crisis Fatigue” it seems – rushing, often foolishly, into a premature return to a lifestyle we in the more affluent nations at any rate have grown so fond of. Perhaps unconsciously so. In the expanding and largely southern realm of the planet, what Northerners used to call “The Third World,” the lack of worldly goods, an adequate income, sufficient food, potable water, education, and affordable or even accessible housing is now compounded by a pandemic over which they have no control or means to combat.

Such glaring and growing inequity provides a link between today’s readings [Zech 9:9-10, Rom 8:9,11-13, Mat 11:25-30], which otherwise seem unusually disparate. For those who care to look, what is at stake is how the global gulf between rich and poor has created the conditions for spiritual as well as material calamity and how to address that.

The first reading brings Palm Sunday to mind.  In this passage from the Book of Zechariah, we are given an image of the Messiah of Peace, so different from the warlike leader so many of the Hebrews had hoped and waited for.  And as a result many did not recognize him when he appeared among them.  Jesus entered Jerusalem, not on a war-horse, but on a young mule, an animal associated with peace rather than battle. So much for militarism, a perennial planetary scourge that acquires greater and more lethal proportions with every passing decade.

And this is what Paul is reminding us in this passage from his letter to the Romans — the Spirit of Christ is the Lord of life and peace, not of war and death, the works of the flesh. By “flesh” here, he means what he elsewhere calls “the body of sin and death” — ‘sarx’ not the ordinary term for the body, ‘soma.’ In his anthropology, ‘sarx’ means the whole of human life under the dominion of sin. But to belong to Christ is to choose life and to choose it in abundance, not just for some, for a wealthy or powerful elite, and not at the cost of depriving other people of their lives or liberty.  Life belongs to all.  And, in the lingering glow of America’s Independence Day, we may rest assured so do liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

For those who find life burdensome, Christ offers refreshment and rest.  To those who are weary and toil endlessly, he offers gentleness and help.  Early in the last century, twenty years after the French people endowed the people of the United States with the Statue of Liberty, the following words by Emma Lazarus were chosen for the plaque placed on a wall inside the pedestal.  They also sound very much like Jesus’ concluding words in today’s gospel:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
[“The New Colossus: Inscription for the Statue of Liberty,” New York Harbour (1883)

So much for anti-immigrant fervor and enforced economic disparity.

American citizens should not pass over the celebration of Independence Day as if it had nothing to do with our faith, or as if our faith had nothing to do with our independence.  Those rich white men who spent that hot summer of 1776 sweating over the wording of the Declaration of Independence saw themselves as doing the work of God and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to secure that belief in fact.  Most of them lost their fortunes and some their lives in the pursuit of liberty, but their honor remains.  Not untarnished, to be sure.  Many owned slaves and despised Catholics, Quakers, and Jews.  They tied political rights to property and wealth.  They scoffed at the idea of women voting or holding pubic office.  But they set in motion the democratic forces that, under God, would in time address these issues of inequality and injustice.  We are still working at securing their belief that it was God who watched over and guided their efforts.

No one’s freedom can be made secure by the servitude of others, whether political, financial, or spiritual.  We are either all free, or none of us is free.  Thomas Jefferson understood that when in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he outlawed slavery.  Had the other members of Congress been as wise and humane, and Jefferson more averse to compromise, the nation could have been spared a terrible civil war four score and seven years later.  And we could do worse than to recall St. Paul’s advice on the matter: where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [2 Cor 3:17]

As for the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and the craving for constant amusement in a consumerist society, it is enough to recall the words of Mahatma Gandhi and later the slogan of the Voluntary Simplicity Movement –“Live simply so that others may simply live.” In the end, turning to the words of Jesus, the burden he asks us to undertake of peace-making and securing justice is light, despite the sacrifices it may and usually does require. Becoming more gentle and humble of heart is no easy task. But perhaps we can learn something from the Covid Crisis after all.

13th Sunday of the Year: On Hospitality

Jesus’ remarks at the beginning of today’s gospel reading are not only harrowing, but don’t sound much like something Jesus would say during his lifetime. They appear to reflect a later era of rejection and persecution. The selection ends on a much more positive note – that of welcome and hospitality. But we may misunderstand what’s at stake here. [2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16; Rom 6:3-4,8-11; Matt 10:37-42]

The background of today’s theme is found in the ancient code of hospitality that prevailed in desert cultures not only of the Middle East but throughout the world. To share food and drink with someone in the desert was to establish an enduring bond of friendship. It still is, as I discovered several times in Iraq. A tragic echo of that profoundly humane culture exists in the account of the Last Supper, when Judas leaves the upper room to betray Jesus after he has eaten with him, even out of the same dish. Such intimate sharing indicated an even stronger bond of loyalty and its violation the deeper disloyalty.

Perhaps we can discover what hospitality is by considering its opposite: not merely coldness or even antagonism towards strangers in our midst, but the treachery, deceit, and violence directed against harmless and defenseless people whose only crime is being different and in need. The gospel of Jesus calls us to a different kind of life, an approach to others characterized by openness, trust, and friendliness.

Today’s first reading from the Second Book of Kings introduces the theme of hospitality. It contains the beginning of the story of the Shunammite woman, whose hospitality to the prophet Elisha is rewarded by the gift of a son, who is born to a couple who have no hope of having a child, like the parents of Isaac, Samuel, Samson, and John the Baptist. The mother and the little boy are also the focus of a later story, in which the boy falls ill and dies. Responding to his now-widowed mother’s frantic and persistent pleas, Elisha goes to him and restores the little boy to life. Such was his gratitude for what people today sometimes call “random acts of kindness.” [For the whole account, see 2 Kings 4:25-37.]

In the selection from the Letter to the Christians at Rome, St. Paul gives us a clear, simple reason for practicing such random acts of kindness. They are expected of us. And, if we are really living the life Christ has offered us, we can’t help performing them. For, Paul tells us, we are raised to a new life in Christ, which is to say baptized into his death so that we might live a new life: his new life. And Christ’s life is one of mercy, forgiveness, and continuous welcome.

That English word “welcome,” which we hear in today’s gospel, comes from the Old English word ‘wil,’ which means “pleasure,” and ‘cuma,’ which means “to arrive.” It refers to someone whose arrival gives us pleasure. To welcome someone means to receive them with joy.

Jesus goes much further than might be expected, when the Holy Land was overrun by soldiers of an occupying nation and whose people were in effect caught between collaboration and rebellion. His counsels are radical even to us today: walk the extra mile, give your coat as well as your shirt, in short, see the human being within the uniform and respond with love. Don’t strike back. And in today’s reading, “anyone who gives even a cup of cold water to one of these lowly ones because he is [called] a disciple will not lose their reward.”

Jesus, like Elisha, knew the meaning of hospitality. He was welcomed into peoples’ homes. He frequently stayed with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. But he also knew rejection: he was thrown out of his own home town, and almost killed by a resentful mob. On several occasions, he seems to have been treated inhospitably by Samaritans and, with a few exceptions, as in the story of Zacchaeus, was snubbed by the rich and famous. He was betrayed by his table companion.

As for the demanding note of those earlier statements told of Jesus about being “worthy” of him, when we peel away the dust of centuries of translations, the word he is said to have used is ‘hikanos,’which means “fit, or able.” To be fit disciples, we must be able to follow where Jesus led. Even to the cross.

God’s word to us today, then, is about receiving others in their need and with joy in our hearts. Hospitality takes many forms, not least today in the era of COVID-19, when in many places in the world hospitals are overcrowded with patients and where the toll has been reduced it is largely because of the heroic and self-sacrificing devotion of carers. I frequently remind my students that the words “hospitality” and “hospital” are closely related. Both come from the Latin word ‘hospes’, which means both “guest,” and “host,”‘ Whether they know it or not, those who care for the sick and dying are hosts to one another in the spirit of Christ. They shall not lose their reward.

Third Sunday of Easter 2020: On the Road

While memories of the global disaster brought about by the new coronavirus at Easter time of this year will long be remembered, there are other, more uplifting reasons to look back on the second week of Easter. Pope John Paul II died on April 2nd, 2005, the eve of the Second Sunday of Easter, the world at his bedside. His funeral was held on April 8th, the end of that Week. He was beatified on May 1, 2011, the Second Sunday of Easter, and canonized (with Pope John XXIII) on April 27, 2014 – the Second Sunday of Easter. It may also be noted that as the world watched on television, Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2nd, 2011.  All of us will no doubt have many reasons to recall the Second Week of Easter in time to come.

But long after the memory of the passing of bin Laden has faded, and hopefully the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020 will be at best an unhappy memory, the great throngs in Rome earlier this century will be remembered. Several million people gathered in Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, and over a million attended his beatification and the canonizations in 2014.  Those immense, joyous gatherings are a far cry from the small, quiet encounter on the road to Emmaus that we recall on this Sunday.  The gospel story reminds us that the great assembles we have witnessed are in every sense only a reflection of the intimate, undramatic meetings that should truly occupy our attention in this Easter season.  How strange in a way that Jesus did not choose to appear to thousands of people after the Resurrection.  According to St. Paul the largest number who saw him numbered about 500 [1 Cor 15:6].

It is still Easter day in the mind of the Church.  We heard this same gospel on the Wednesday right after Easter.  It tells the story of two early disciples walking back to a village called Emmaus after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. They seemed to have remained with the other disciples for the Sabbath.  But like Thomas in the Gospel of John, they couldn’t believe the women’s wild story that Jesus was risen. They are deeply disappointed.  Apparently one of these fellows, Cleopas, was well-enough known to the early community to have his name attached to this rather embarrassing story.  It probably got a good laugh from his friends and family for a long, long time.

The two grief-stricken and slightly slow-witted disciples found their faith restored when they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, just as Thomas came to believe when he saw and touched Christ a week after the Resurrection.  In the case of the two disciples, and of us as well, the same could be said: “Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe” [John 20:29].

There’s another interesting item in Luke’s story.  At first, the disciples report that  “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”  But when they return to the rest of the disciples, not only do they agree that Jesus has risen, for they have indeed seen him, but they also affirm that he appeared to Simon.  Luke has no account of any appearance to Simon Peter in his description of the events following the Resurrection, nor do the other evangelists except when Jesus appears to the disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee many days later.  But there is a confirmation of an apparition to Peter in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, probably the earliest of all accounts of the Resurrection, where he says “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and … he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve [1 Cor. 15: 4-5].”

Hard to believe, skeptics say.  But Paul knew St. Peter, with whom he did not always get along well.  He didn’t make that story up.  But what does it take to believe something?  Or to believe in someone or something?

Let me suggest that the disciples on the road to Emmaus encountered the Spirit of Christ before they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread — “were not our hearts burning within us as he talked to us on the road and he explained the Scriptures to us?”

Luke reminds us that the eyes of our minds and hearts need to be opened by faith in order for us to recognize the presence of Christ, a presence that will find us anywhere.  For believing is an act of the heart as well as of the mind, perhaps in some ways even more so.  There is a tradition that the Latin word “credo,” I believe,” comes from the Latin  words ‘cor’ — “heart,” and ‘dare’ “to give.”  To believe means to give our heart to something, or rather, to someone.

The appearance of Jesus to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus has something else to tell us, something worth thinking about in the afterglow of those Roman celebrations and the harsh glare of the coronavirus pandemic.  Luke reminds us that it is in the small things, the unexpected and seemingly insignificant moments of life, that we truly encounter the presence of God – the sharing of scarce food, making and distributing face-masks, checking on elderly neighbors.  We know it in the breaking of bread and in opening the pages of a book.  God’s book.  But God’s book is wide and vast.  Ultimately it is the whole universe itself.  To the eyes of faith, every cranny and quark is filled with the presence of God.  In order to see, we need only look with the eyes of faith.

Second Sunday of Lent: Light in the Darkness

In years to come, the spring of this year is more likely to be remembered for the outbreak of the new coronavirus and COVID-19, the acronym for the disease symptoms associated with it, beginning last year, than even the ongoing political hullabaloo in this country pointing toward the elections of next autumn.  In comparison, our observance of Lent may seem routine and in fact ordinary, but the message of this second Sunday is no less timely because it is timeless.

The central element in this triptych of scriptural passages is the account of the Transfiguration in Matthew’s gospel, one likely based on Mark’s and Luke’s accounts. (Mysteriously, there is no parallel passage in John’s gospel.) So important was this event in the view of later Christians that a special feast day was instituted to commemorate it, still one of the holiest celebrations in the eastern Orthodox Churches.

The framing narratives begin with God’s command to Abraham to leave Haran in what is now Turkey for a land of promise, the beginning

Gen 12:1-4a
2 Tim 1:8b-10
Mt 17:1-9

of the long pilgrimage of the Elect, the ‘Chosen,’ toward their spiritual destiny. For Christians the passage from the Second Letter to Timothy over two millennia later points to the fulfillment of that promise “manifested through the ‘epiphany,’ “the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” [2 Tim 1:10]. The prediction of the death and resurrection of Jesus knits the three readings together, a point made clearer in Luke’s account with the observation that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about his “exodus” which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem [Luke 9:31].

Typically, the disciples fail to comprehend the meaning of this prophetic moment, much as we are likely to do ourselves if distracted by current events, however pressing. And that’s why it is fitting on this second Sunday of Lent to be reminded of the significance of what happened there and what we are doing here.

As we ponder the events of the last three months, what strikes me about the gospel reading, is how exactly it affirms that the approaching suffering and death of Jesus robs death of its power and brings life and immortality into the clear light of glory. In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, which are echoed in today’s liturgy, Jesus had to enter his glory through suffering, the Passover or departure spoken of by Moses and Elijah:  “For it was fitting that [God], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering [Heb 2:10].”

The relevance for this Sunday in the “joyful season” of Lent is that by following Christ, taking up our own crosses daily, we are drawn ever more closely into his Passover, his departure into glory, even if, like him, we enter it fully only beyond the final curtain of life.

Each of the three gospel accounts relate that Peter proposed erecting three tents or “tabernacles,” a suggestion that might seem strange except for the fact that the Churches celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration in August, close to the Jewish Feast of Succoth or Tabernacles, the festival of the fruit harvest.  The connection is important, because the principal offering at this feast was a basket of harvest fruits accompanied by the recitation of the great acts by which God delivered the Hebrews from captivity and their entry into Canaan, the land of Promise.  The Book of Leviticus prescribes erecting huts or booths made of leafy branches as a reminder of the desert journey of the Hebrews [Lev. 23:39-43].  Many observant Jews still do this.

But even this Passover theme, and the fulfillment of promise that it commemorates, falls short of the truth revealed on that mountain.  And here is where the clue is so important.  If Jesus had to enter his glory through suffering, the “Exodus” or departure spoken of by Moses and Elijah, can we who profess to follow him expect a lesser, easier path?

According to today’s gospel, the tedium of trekking through a dark wasteland of testing and trial is broken by a shaft of light that leaps ahead from the Resurrection.  For a brief moment, we see divine radiance  shining through and around Jesus, standing between those other two wayfarers, Moses and Elijah, who were also holy mountain climbers, and there comes a voice…

Like Peter, James, and John, we hardly know what to make of all this.  But there it is.  Whatever happened on that mountain, the event itself was long and widely remembered.  And as a reminder of human hope and a prelude of glory, this memory of Transfiguration comes at a moment both appropriate and opportune in Lent and in life, not least as we ponder how best to assist those who suffer wherever there is need for hope in the promise first made so long ago to a small tribe of pilgrims wandering in the deserts of the Middle East in search of a land of promise.

Second Sunday of the Year: A Light Shining

Tomorrow our nation will observe the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born on January 15th in 1929.  He died at the hands of an assassin in Memphis just over 39 years later. It seems safe to say that things have not been the same since, not exactly. I can’t help but wonder what King would think of the present situation, not least the Impeachment of Donald Trump.  But somehow I think he might be even more focused on voter registration and the full restoration of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which his life, preaching, and witness were so instrumental in passing.

As we begin the period of the year still considered “ordinary time,” which may take a bit of stretching to accommodate in days to come, the figure who dominates our scripture readings is another social and spiritual reformer, the man known forever as

Is 49:3,5-6
1 Cor 1:1-3
John 1:29-34

John the Baptist, the “forerunner.” St. Paul does not mention him in his letter to the Corinthians, but the call-out regarding the grace and peace of God casts light on the passage from Isaiah applied here to John, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” [Isaiah 49:6].

Next week, the focus on Sundays will shift to the teachings of Jesus.  But John mattered, especially to Jesus.  And so we pause to consider him and those like him who prepare the way.

The first two readings remind us that God lifted up Israel and then the New Israel, the community of Jesus Christ throughout the world, to be a light to the nations.  Sometimes that light seems to falter and even to fail, but it will not be extinguished.  Whether we will add to its brightness and light up the world, as Dr. King did, or forget the gospel in our enthusiasm for amusements and entertainment is up to us.  As King reminded us in his address to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington on Feb. 6, 1968,  “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Like John the Baptist, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the Light himself (see John 1:8), but gave witness to the light and so helped scatter the darkness of the times.  Like John, he paid for his testimony with his life.  Nor did John or King end the darkness, which, as it does, returned and pressed ever harder against the Light. In terms of King’s struggle, de facto segregation still prevails in great American cities; minority voter suppression and disenfranchisement persist in several states; disproportionate law enforcement,  sentencing, and incarceration exist in much of the legal system; violence and fear darken the lives of citizens trapped by poverty and discrimination; and war itself, which King was addressing that day in 1968, less than a month before his martyrdom, continues to threaten and scar the world.  But the struggle for justice and peace goes on.  It does so because of the work and witness of prophets such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who continue to bear testimony to the Light that scatters the moral and political darkness of our era.

I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.
I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation” [Psalm 40:8-10].

33rd Sunday of the Year: Not Yet Nigh but Nearing

It would hardly be wide of the mark to point out that the “holiday season” is definitely upon us.  It has been here for weeks in fact, at least in the big-box stores and the gorgeous decorations in Macy’s windows.  It started this year weeks before Halloween, and what could be more seasonal than celebrating Veteran’s Day with a “Black Friday” sale on mattresses and giant flat-screen TVs?

Advent is nevertheless nearing – and oldsters can tell from the shift in the tone of the Sunday readings toward the anticipation of the End Times. It’s a also way of foreshadowing the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of another.  And then comes Advent, which I am tempted to call “formerly a period of subdued but joyful anticipation of the Christmas season,” which actually begins on Christmas!

That Advent hardly exists any more other than as a fond memory of a time when school kids gave up sweets and donated their pennies to save pagan babies in faraway places with strange-sounding names.  The colored lights and decorations are already up. The parades have begun. Dozens of Santas crowd street corners and shop fronts. “Advent calendars,” once a way of marking the weeks and days before Christmas by opening little doors to reveal Christmas themes and symbols, now reveal merchandise. Especially electronic gadgetry. Maybe a Tesla or a BMW.  Perhaps Thanksgiving will provide a welcome break from the Christmas glee, if not (heaven knows) from shopping sprees, even on Thanksgiving Day itself. The commercial world remains very much with us. (Yes, on Christmas Day, too.)

Once upon a time, the Sundays after Thanksgiving that led up to and inaugurated Advent scared hell out of us kids (or so it was hoped), featuring accounts of what many still think of as the end of the world, with descriptions made frighteningly memorable by the eloquent Jesuits at our parish church. In these troubled times, of course, many people have also had the hell scared out of them by the prospect of the environmental cataclysm threatening to befall the world in a distressingly few years. Or the prospect of another war or the loss of their pensions. Or the political circuses in Washington, London, and elsewhere.

Perhaps we should be jittery, considering the mess humans have made of the world over the last fifty years or more.  But that’s really not what Jesus is talking about in today’s

Mal 3:19-20a
2 Thess 3:7-12
Luke 21:5-19

gospel, or that passage from the book of Malachi, which — not coincidentally — is the last book of the Old Testament.  The message of both, and St. Paul, too, is not one of doom and gloom, but of hope. And at the risk of anticipating Advent again, hope is the great theme of that season, too.Both Paul and Jesus himself actually warned us against getting too worked up about rumors of the End Times.  In today’s gospel reading, for instance, Jesus says, “Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’  Do not go after them.  And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified; for this must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” (Luke 21: 8-9.)  That theme resounds throughout the gospels: do not be afraid!

None of this was simply talk about history, about space and time and the stock market or even the stones of the Temple.  (The Wailing Wall is still standing, by the way, so don’t get panicky about Armageddon.)  What Malachi, Paul, and Jesus were all saying is that this world, with all its governments, social systems, wealth, poverty, wars, misery, and suffering is not ultimate, not finally decisive.  Money, power, and success are not what life is all about, despite what lurks behind those little doors on your Advent calendar.

The message we hear in today’s readings and will echo in the weeks to come is that we are not to place either our hopes or our fears in the powers and structures of this present world, which are not only fallible, but will inevitably fail us.  Still, as St. Paul insists, we may not resign our commission as members of our communities and hang around waiting for the Parousia.  Rather, we must attend to the very real needs of those around us and the living planet as a whole, more now than ever. Or we won’t be ready when the Son of Man does appear!

In fact, we are called to build a truly humane city, a commonwealth of love and justice, a world where  peace, truth. and freedom can flourish.  We are called to look to our neighbor in order to assist and protect, especially the poor, the oppressed, and defenseless, not least the political refugee.  (Yes, Virginia, it’s in the bible – from beginning to end!) For all that, Jesus warns us, we should not count on being rewarded, honored, or even thanked.  Expect, rather, to be misunderstood, opposed, and even persecuted.

Even so, we should lift up our hearts.  For, as Malachi had it, “…for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall” [Malachi 4:2 in the RSV].  The former world is inevitably coming to an end, with all its injustice and suffering and destruction.  It has been ending all along in fact, ever since Christ rose from the dead.  A new world is coming, just as surely, but it will get here in God’s good time.  In the meantime, we have some important work to do. The bumper sticker had it right: “Jesus is coming soon—look busy.”

25th Sunday of the Year: About Stewardship

This weekend marks a notable effort on the part of many world leaders and the world’s youth to halt the seemingly inexorable drift of the planet toward environmental catastrophe. On Friday an estimated four million young people and supportive adults took to the streets of the major capitals and other cities of the world to protest the slow pace or actual indifference toward addressing global climate change by government officials and agencies almost everywhere. On the same day in Monaco, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began its meeting to consider a special report on the ocean and the frozen areas of the planet, which are all under devastating assault by global warming.

Tomorrow, following the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York last Tuesday, a special Climate Change Summit will be convened, with over 100 countries represented and about 60 world leaders speaking.  The United States will be represented but will not actively participate. In keeping with his disavowal of the epoch-making Paris Climate Accord of 2015, from which he intends to disengage the United States next year, the President will be singularly absent among many dozens of concerned heads of state from Canada to India.

Today’s gospel reading bears considerable relevance to these events. It concerns stewardship, a feature of several of Jesus’ stories and remarks. The

Amos 8:4-7
1 Tim 2:1-8
Lk 16:1-13 or 16:10-13

steward (oikonomos) was the person in charge of affairs, from a wedding feast to a vineyard to the business interests of an entrepreneur, as in today’s reading. It was a position of trust and responsibility, and in this case, the steward failed significantly in managing his property. He is dismissed, but first an accounting is required, and here he uses his position to win friends and influence creditors as he looks ahead to a difficult future. In this he may have been dishonest and self-serving, but he was at least “prudent.”

Stewardship entered the discussion of environmental crisis several decades ago as a relevant way of discussing humankind’s responsibility for managing the earth’s resources prudently, by not in effect squandering the wealth entrusted to us (Gen. 2:15 and elsewhere).  But that is precisely what we have done, and an accounting is due. The heavy penalty will fall, perhaps not surprisingly, on the most vulnerable – the poor, the elderly, the infirm, and those caught through no fault of their own in the wake of natural disasters that are quite evidently increasing on a world-wide scale.  If anything the rate of destruction will accelerate.

As Sir Crispin Tickell, President of Green College, Oxford University’s medical school, and former UK ambassador to Mexico, remarked in a lecture I attended in 1992, “The refugees of the future will be environmental refugees.”  His prediction has already clearly come true as hundreds of thousands of  refugees from Central America wander north after drought, crop failures, and plant diseases destroyed their livelihoods. Similarly in Africa and Asia, natural disasters and crop failures are driving millions of desperate people, the wretched of the Earth, to look for refuge in the more fertile and prosperous lands of the north.

The human world will not be alone in the calamity inexorably approaching. In less than 50 years, the US and Canada have lost more than 3 billion birds.  Millions of animal and plant species will disappear within this century, as the planet’s life-giving biodiversity is swallowed up by drought, fire, and flood.  Fish stocks will vanish, and even tens of thousands of species of insects necessary for pollination and other humble, life-supporting tasks will become extinct.

The world’s youth, increasingly alarmed by the prospect of a future of global climate catastrophe, will be watching and in many cases attending the conferences scheduled for the coming days. They are keenly aware that the present adult generation will not be around to experience the unparalleled and world-wide suffering predicted for the closing decades of the 21st century. They are just as keenly aware that the time for responsible action is at hand.  They are prepared to do what their elders will not or cannot – not merely protest but responsibly undertake the stewardship entrusted to human race by its Creator.

“…wisdom is justified of all her children.” Luke 7:35, Mat 21:16, citing Psalm 8:2

16th Sunday of the Year: The Welcome Table

This weekend, the eyes of the world may be fixed on the moon and the memory of its first human sojourners, but God’s message to us today is about hospitality. There’s a certain irony here as earthlings ponder the possibility of making some kind of home in that most inhospitable of environments in decades to come.

In lush, green Ireland, hospitality was of great importance to early Christians.  In a series of ancient proverbs beginning with the word eochair (‘key’), it is claimed that the key to miracles is generosity.  A short poem put it this way:

                                    ‘O King of Stars!

      whether my house be dark or be bright

      it will not be closed against anybody;

      may Christ not close his house against me.’

Traveling through deserts over the years, whether in New Mexico, China, or Iraq, I discovered how immeasurably more important hospitality is in hot, barren, and unforgiving lands.  In times past, to refuse hospitality to a desert traveler was equivalent to murder.  And desert people still tend to treat travelers and refugees well.

Gen 18:1-10a Col 1:24-28 Luke 10:38-42

At some time or other, I imagine we have all benefited from the hospitality of friends, family, and neighbors — or suffered because of its absence, as entire families are experiencing daily along the southern border of the United States.  And this leads us to the opening story about Abraham and Sarah in this section of Genesis.  It serves as the prelude to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah we will hear about next week, those ancient cities whose sin was the ultimate act of inhospitality.

The story takes place near what the Bible calls the Terebinth of Mamre — a site near Hebron which was the burial place of the patriarchs —  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — and is often in the news for reasons that have very little to do with hospitality.  Or perhaps everything to do with it.  For Hebron lies in the hill country of Judea, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem and has long been a center of devotion for both Jews and especially Arab Muslims.  Mamre itself was famous for its oak trees as well as its grove of terebinths — Turpentine Trees, if you’re curious.  So it was a place where water and shelter were found, an oasis and therefore a good place to camp.  And that is what Abraham and Sarah were doing when God came calling in the guise of three strangers.

How Abraham and Sarah tend to the apparent needs of these strangers bears directly on the future of the Hebrew people and the fulfillment of God’s promises.  For Christians, too, it is no small thing to tend to extend hospitality and care to the needy, for as the Epistle to the Hebrews later says, alluding to this passage, “Let brotherly love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”  [3:1-2].  There is more to it than that.  The author goes on, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body.” 

In that mysterious final phrase as well as in both the gospel and today’s second reading, St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Colossae, we learn far more than they seem to tell us about our lives today as followers of Jesus.  In the end, it’s all about justice, as the Psalm response chosen for today reminds us:  “Those who do justice will live in the presence of God.”

First, St. Paul tells us about the great mystery , “the glory beyond price” that God has revealed in Jesus — a point easy to miss because we are so used to hearing the words.  Or they go by so fast in the heat that we might not have been paying attention.  He calls it “the mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory.”  That presence of Christ, himself the presence of God among us in visible human form, forms the basis of a whole new ethic.  It finds its echo in what Jesus says to his friend Martha of Bethany in this little parable about true hospitality.

Martha has been dashing around preparing a meal for Jesus and complaining that Mary is not helping.  Martha is simply carrying out the most fundamental requirement of traditional hospitality, providing generously for her guest.  And she is right to wonder if Mary has forgotten how important it is to provide food and drink and the other amenities, just as Abraham and Sarah and my hosts in Iraq, China, and Lebanon did.  What Jesus tells her is that she is overlooking what Mary has not forgotten — the presence of the One in their midst.

This is not just a lesson about the relative importance of the active and contemplative lives, as the medieval writers liked to imagine, or how just a single dish rather than many is sufficient as scripture scholars say today.  It is about recognizing Christ in our midst, especially in the form of the stranger seeking asylum, the poor, the hungry, those in prison.  And here we have the real echo of what Jesus teaches in Matthew’s gospel: “‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ … ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’” [Matt. 25: 34-36, 40]. 

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, similarly, “Whoever receives a little child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me…” [Luke 9: 49].  In short, pay less attention to what you are providing and more to those who need your help and you will gaze on the very face of God.  Just like Abraham and Sarah.  And Mary. And the disciples on the road to Emmaus who invited that other Traveler in for a bite to eat.

We don’t recognize Christ in each other simply by meditating quietly on the meaning of scripture or attending long sermons or witnessing elaborate liturgical extravaganzas in big air-conditioned church auditoriums.  What Jesus says is that we find him in attending to others, especially those the world tends to forget and overlook — the powerless, the homeless, the outcast – the asylum-seekers.  That’s the great mystery of God’s love and presence, the foundation of all the promises and their fulfillment.  So may we not fail to be generous to the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the homeless refugee, for by such hospitality we may not only entertain angels unawares, we will inherit the Kingdom of God.

Calling it treason

“Treason doth neuer prosper? What’s the Reason?
for if it prosper none dare call it treason.”

The saying goes back to the epigrams of Sir John Harington in the late 16th century, who had an awkward relationship with the English monarch of the day, James I.  With the term being bandied about loosely in recent times, not least by the President in regard to his critics and people he doesn’t like, a favor often and generously repaid by politicians, columnists, and late-night TV comedians, perhaps it needs another look. It’s a serious claim, but a murky topic.

Commonly speaking, treason amounts to something like “betrayal of trust, treachery.” But a look at how treason is viewed in the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Legal Code may help clarify the issue for anyone who cares.  And they should.

According to Article III, Section 3, “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.”

The article goes on to point out, “The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted.”

This provision is amplified in the U.S. Code: “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.” (U.S. Code § 2381. Treason. June 25, 1948, ch. 645, 62 Stat. 807; Pub. L. 103–322, title XXXIII, § 330016(2)(J), Sept. 13, 1994, 108 Stat. 2148.” [https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2381]

While most serous during time of war, and technically limited to it, that first Constitutional “or” is a powerful little conjunction. What follows it is important.  Clearly, neither criticizing the President nor bringing articles of impeachment against the President or other government officials is in any way included.  The latter is, in fact, a prerogative of the U.S. Congress. But what does it mean to give “aid and comfort” to the enemy?

In the United States, treason may be an offense either against the federal government or against respective states. Oddly enough, only one individual was ever executed for treason against the federal government.  In 1862 during the Civil War, the hapless William Mumford was convicted and hanged for it after a military trial for tearing down a United States flag in New Orleans. It is not clear whether New Orleans was in fact occupied by federal forces at the time. [See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treason_laws_in_the_United_States.  Also see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-treason/2017/02/17/8b9eb3a8-f460-11e6-a9b0-ecee7ce475fc_story.html?utm_term=.f4f6cb053a0b]

John Brown was hanged for treason against the State of Virginia, insurrection, and murder in 1859 as was his associate Aaron Dwight Stevens the following year. Those convicted of treason against the U.S., including giving “aid and comfort to the enemy,” but not executed, include Robert Henry Best, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1948; Martin Monti, sentenced to 25 years in prison in 1949; Mildred Gillars (Axis Sally), sentenced from ten to thirty years in prison in 1949; and Iva Toguri D’Aquino (Tokyo Rose), sentenced to ten years in 1949, pardoned in 1977 by President Ford. Because the United States was not at war with anyone in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage, not treason.

It is worth noting that in contrast to the Constitution and the U.S. Legal Code, a standard dictionary definition (in this instance Merriam-Webster) defines treason as “the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign’s family.”

It might reasonably be asked whether the assassination or attempted assassination of a President, member of Congress, or Supreme Court justice, has ever been prosecuted as an act of treason. Were Squeaky Fromm, Sara Jane Moore, or John Hinckley, prosecuted for treason? In fact the charge is usually that of murder or attempted murder. Consider:

Charles J. Guiteau, executed in 1882 for the murder of James Garfield in 1881.
Leon Czolgosz, executed October 29, 1901, for murdering William McKinley that year.
John Schrank, found not guilty by reason of insanity for the attempted murder of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and committed to a hospital for the criminally insane in 1914.
Giuseppe Zangara, executed in 1933 for the assassination of Anton Cermak, Mayor of Chicago, but who failed to kill President Franklin Roosevelt.
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, convicted of the attempted assassination of Gerald Ford in 1975.
Sara Jane Moore, convicted of the attempted assassination of Gerald Ford in 1975.
John Hinckley Jr., found not guilty by reason of insanity of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Shannon Richardson convicted and sentenced to eighteen years in prison for the attempted murder of President Barack Obama in 2013.

Other Offenses against the State

“High crimes and misdemeanors” is a phrase from Section 4 of Article Two of the United States Constitution: “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” But what constitutes high crimes and misdemeanors?

According to the authoritative source usually cited by my undergraduate students, “The charge of high crimes and misdemeanors covers allegations of misconduct by officials, such as perjury of oath, abuse of authority, bribery, intimidation, misuse of assets, failure to supervise, dereliction of duty, unbecoming conduct, refusal to obey a lawful order, chronic intoxication, and tax evasion.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_crimes_and_misdemeanors#United_States. But also see Jon Roland, “Meaning of High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Constitution Society (January 19, 1999), and “High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Constitutional Rights Foundation. Crf-usa.org.]

Back in the day, as noted by the New York Times in 1861, James Madison wisely wrote in No. 43 of The Federalist,

“As treason may be committed against the United States the authority of the United States ought to be enabled to punish it: but as new tangled and artificial treasons have been the great engines by which violent factions, the natural offspring of free governments, have usually wreaked their alternate malignity on each other, the Convention has with great judgment opposed a barrier to this peculiar danger by inserting a Constitutional definition of the crime.” [https://www.nytimes.com/1861/01/25/archives/treason-against-the-united-states.html]

Those Founding Fathers knew a thing or two about factions and about treason.  So did Sir John Harington.

Déjà vu all over again?

We have been here before… an accelerating crescendo of drumbeats for war emanating from the current Administration while facts remain murky, evidence is lacking, denials and doubts abound, and motives are anything but transparent. Americans may be excused, if not forgiven, for forgetting how the United States annexed Puerto Rico, the Philippine archipelago, Guam, the Spanish islands of the West Indies, and treacherously assumed control of Cuba following the 1898 Spanish-American War. Part of that drumbeat was reaction to the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor in February of that year killing 260 sailors. But despite claims that a Spanish mine had exploded near the powder magazine, subsequent investigations concluded that the explosion was accidental.

In 1964, a doctored account of the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” released by the White House of Lyndon Johnson, provided a case for an aggressive act by a North Vietnamese gunboat, when in fact, the gunboat had been fired on first by the U.S.S. Maddox. The “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” passed in  August, 1964, repeated the lie, including a wholly fictitious “second attack,” paving the way for the Vietnam War. The resolution was repealed in 1971, despite White House pressure, when it was far too late.  But the Adoption of the War Powers Resolution in 1973, over Nixon’s veto, requires the President to consult with Congress in regard to decisions involving U.S. forces in hostilities or imminent hostilities, a limitation which is still in effect.

This did not prevent the gross manipulation of fact and outright “misinformation” on the part of the second Bush administration in 2002 leading up to the “Iraq Resolution” passed by Congress in October of that year.  There followed the bombardment and invasion of a country that had no role, as had been alleged before the U.N. and the American public, in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, had no connection with Al Qaeda, no nuclear arms program, and had decommissioned its “weapons of mass destruction” years earlier.

Hundreds of thousands of deaths later, including over 3,800 U.S. military personnel, more than a trillion dollars of lost “treasure,” and after unimaginable suffering by civilian populations, the turmoil in Iraq is far from over.  The involvement of Iran, its neighbor, in efforts to influence reconstruction of a nation that had waged an 8-year war against it two decades earlier (with American support of Saddam Hussein’s forces), was inevitable and has led to increased chaos and the threat of another war in the Middle East.

Have we learned anything from such misadventures? From the sound of the drums, not much. But the answer to that question is probably blowing in the wind.  Yes, we have been here before.