Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: September 2016

26th Sunday of the Year

Amos 6:1a,4-7
1 Tim 6:11-16
Luke 16:19-31

According to the Gospel as I understand it, God loves everyone, and as the love of God is infinite, I suspect that also means equally.  The only limits on the unlimited love of God are those we place on it.  But if God does have any preferences, according to the biblical witness it’s a great concern for the poor.  When we consider the readings for today from Amos and the Gospel of Luke, with their strong condemnation of the oppressiveness and arrogance of the rich, we might also get the impression that God isn’t concerned about the affluent, but only the poor.

In fact, God is concerned for everyone, the rich as well as the poor.  The words of Amos and Jesus in today’s readings are directed to the rich as an appeal to wake up and recognize their obligations to relieve the sufferings of the poor and oppressed.  God wants the rich to be saved and will do everything possible to assist them.

There’s little indication in these accounts that the rich had themselves been actively oppressing the poor.  Their sin was mainly indifference, an indifference based on willful ignorance.  They weren’t paying attention, and the reason for that is because they were so busy enjoying themselves, wantonly and wastefully.  The cruelest thing about such attitudes is probably the casual carelessness that simply overlooks the needs and suffering of the poor.  The rich man did not persecute Lazarus.  He just ignored him.  In fact, the only compassion showed poor Lazarus was by the dogs who came to lick his sores.  It’s a subtle touch in the story, and perhaps an important one.  Dogs, after all, were despised in the Middle East and, if anything, treated even worse than the poor. (“Dogs” was frequently a term of reproach aimed at heretics and pagans in general.)

This week many Americans were shocked to see images of looters rioting in Charlotte and disturbances in Tulsa, Chicago, and other cities where the breakdown of trust between the police and citizens, between the rich and poor, the “haves” and the “have-nots” has erupted in violence.

It was shocking and meant to be.  But it was also understandable, once you consider that for years, the poor and oppressed people of that world, and many other places, have considered mainstream America not only indifferent to their suffering, but the cause of it.  So sporadic attacks on shops and sometimes shoppers along Chicago’s exclusive “Magnificent Mile” should not be seen merely as instances of theft, robbery and hooliganism.  These are no less the expression of outrage by mainly young people who are out of work, out of luck, and out of hope. And increasingly out of patience.
If we do not understand that, we have not learned much from the recent turmoil in our streets.  And what we need to learn is that our power, might, and economic prosperity are not only the envy of the world, but the cause of deep resentment when increasingly reserved to a privileged few and accompanied by arrogance and especially indifference to the needs and suffering of the many.
God’s message to us today speaks of care and concern, of the obligation as well as the opportunity to use the resources with which we have been blessed to alleviate suffering and poverty in our midst and wherever it exists.  The danger to us is that we aren’t paying attention.
Americans are generous and caring people — when they are paying attention. And when we do not define assistance solely in terms of self-interest, which has become the great theme of our domestic and foreign policy for the last fifty years, to our shame.


But there are signs of hope.  Acts of astonishingly generous philanthropy on the part of celebrities, digital-age tycoons, rock stars, and sports figures can do something to help alleviate the poverty and suffering of the wretched of the earth, but they cannot end it. What can end it is a massive change of heart on the part of the wealthy and powerful, whether individuals or nations, but also of ordinary, hard-working people who hope and actually try to redress the terrible inequality that mars the world today.

Building a future of hope is the true face of care — a divine face, for God cares not only for people, but for all of creation.  Even the animals, who have given us their lives and affection as companions, and even sometimes minister to us in our sorrow and hurt, deserve our compassion.  But above all, even such small signs of compassion and active care remind us that we have only to pay attention, to look beyond our own interests to see the desperate need that summons us to act and to act generously, impulsively, and cheerfully to overcome want and misery wherever we find it.

If we can, the people of the world will come to recognize us as sisters and brothers, not as willfully ignorant and indifferent inhabitants of the richest, most powerful, and spoiled nation on earth.  For that day to come, we can surely pray.

24th Sunday of the Year REMEMBERING 9/11

Ex 32:7-11,13-14
1 Tim 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-32

Fifteen years ago, this Sunday fell on the weekend following the terrible events of September 11th, 2001.  In 2005 and 2010, this same Sunday fell on September 11th itself.  As I looked back on what I preached on those days I realized (again) that, as I said, “…history may be past, but it is hardly over.  The wounds of 9/11 still run deep, not only in the lives of the families and friends who lost loved ones on that day, but in the psyche of our nation.  In a recent interview about the events of that day, Condoleezza Rice, then the national security advisor, recalled that her secretary wrote a huge X through the date on the calendar in her office.  Things would never be the same, she said.  There was before 9/11, 9/11, and after 9/11.  The date became a dividing line in our nation’s history – and in more ways than one.
It won’t go away.  But we do have to move on, also.  And we have tried. It’s very hard.  In some ways, we probably took the wrong path – I’m sure that Jesus would have wept over the death and destruction that followed on 9/11 as the United States attempted to extract vengeance for the attacks, blaming the wrong people.  And it is still too early to tell what we have gained or even learned from all that.  One thing is very clear.  Sin and death can still assert themselves with force.  But the power of love and forgiveness unleashed by the death and resurrection of Jesus has not been extinguished.  Hope still lives.

So today’s three readings from the word of God, tell us something important about sin, guilt, and redemption.  First off, whether we like it not, people do sin. Good people, and sometimes hugely.  And without doubt will continue to.  That’s what the first reading from the Book of Exodus reminds us.  But it ends, more forcefully, with the promise of forgiveness and redemption.  The second reading from the Letter to Timothy makes it clear just how such forgiveness and redemption are guaranteed us: “You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.”  Not the righteous, and especially not the self-righteous, not the vengeful and violent who feel no need of forgiveness, but those who are sinners and know and admit they are sinners and beg for forgiveness.  Like Paul himself.

Our one and only claim to the mercy of God is just that:  We sin.  Strange, isn’t it.  Especially the lengths we all go to deny the one thing that qualifies us to receive the grace and forgiveness of God.

In the story of the prodigal, the focus is not on sin, guilt, and shame, which are taken for granted.  Jesus wants us to consider something else, even beyond the young man’s coming to his senses, his repentance, and his acknowledgment of sin — all of which, by the way, are guided by self-interest.  That doesn’t matter.  What does matter is the joy his father experiences just to know that his wayward son has come back home.  The personal hurt is forgiven, swallowed up in the old man’s happiness.  It is that joy, which doesn’t need words of absolution, that actually guides us into the story of the prodigal.  For St. Luke prefaces his most famous and important story about forgiveness and reconciliation with two little parables that tell us in advance what’s important in Jesus’ scheme of values and, you can be sure, God’s.

The punch lines tell it all.  And for some reason, it took me a long time to see it: each of the three stories ends with the same words — “Rejoice with me…”, “Rejoice with me…,” and twice in the story of the Prodigal, just in case we didn’t get the first and second time.  First: “Let us eat and celebrate because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life.”  And then, “We had to celebrate and rejoice!”  And then the punch line: “This lost sheep, this lost coin, this lost brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life.  He was lost, and is found.”

The failing of the older brother is that he could not bring himself to rejoice in his little brother’s salvation.  That’s the moral of the story, plain and simple.”

Fifteen years ago, on the Sunday after 9/11, this same Sunday, I said this, and I wouldn’t change a thing:

“As a people, we stand today humbled by the great disaster that befell on Tuesday, but resolute in our faith and firm in our commitment to heal the wounded, to comfort the grieving, to bury our dead, and to rebuild not only a shattered community, but our moral purpose as a nation.  The temptation is powerful to strike out in anger, to violate those we believe to have violated us. But on this day of prayer and mourning, if we listen to the voice of Jesus, even the words from his cross of execution, we will hear both of forgiveness but also a warning: those who take the sword shall perish by the sword. “Beloved,” the great evangelist [Paul] also wrote, “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  No,” he adds, “‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” [Rom 12:19-21, citing Deut. 32:35 and Prov. 25:21].”

Fifteen years later, we still have cause to ask ourselves “Am I going to stand outside the party blaming and shaming or go inside to rejoice in the community of love and forgiveness?”  For our lost brother was dead, and has come back to life.  He was lost and is found.  What amazing grace.

P.S. to Hillary

Hey, Hillary… don’t do snarky any more.  You don’t do it well.  And then you won’t have to apologize.  Just sayin’…


Dear Hillary,

I sympathize. The whole email controversy is a sham for one thing.  For another, Bernie was right.  The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your (expletive deleted) emails.  Well, many are.  I’m particularly tired of it.  But if it weren’t this, it would be something else.  Someone is surely trying to find the word “Benghazi” in those thousands and thousands of undeleted and supposedly deleted and deleted emails.  Comey of the FBI seems particularly interested, which is not surprising, since he has been trying to hang something damaging around your neck from the time he was a special counsel back in 1996 to the original Senate committee investigating (wait for it… drum roll, please) the Whitewater Affair. I think he was a Republican then.  He now says he’s independent. Like Bernie. But not very much so.

They didn’t find any wrong-doing then, and so far, they haven’t found any in the other areas under investigation. Not that they will stop looking.  Ever.  But for many in our country where one is presumed innocent until proved guilty, if there’s smoke, even fake smoke, there has to be some fire, even if in fact there are only mirrors.

My sympathy is not groundless.  When I just checked my three regular accounts, the total of undeleted emails is now 45,175, even though I just deleted 60 more and try to delete a hundred every day.  (I rest a bit on Sundays.)  At this rate, it will take me 14 months to delete them all, but I receive about 100 more every day, so I am not making much headway.  Most of those come from political action committees, virtually all of whom are seeking money from me. Small bits — $3 or so.  But these emails have multiplied like rabbits on Viagra.  I unsubscribe, but they come back, like bill collectors or people pushing bible tracts.  So that’s also why I am not making much headway.  And if someone asked me about whether there was a (C) in some of them, I’d have to do a global search, because I don’t recall.  I really don’t. I think you’ll understand.

P.S. I am told that the word “galore” comes from the Irish go lear which means “to the brim.” That is, “enough!”  In fact, more than enough.  Time to move on.  Don’t go all defensive.  You’re a piker compared to me.

23rd Sunday of the Year

Wisdom 9:13-18
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
Luke 14:25-33

In light of the seemingly endless crisis over Syria, the parable Jesus uses in today’s gospel has a chilly aspect.  But Jesus is talking about renunciation, not making war.  Even so it gives us something to think about.  Think before you act.

Jesus had a way with words, and it was often pretty shocking.  Obviously, you can’t really take Jesus literally when he’s just grabbing your attention.  At least not all the time.  Some of his closest followers, such as Martha, Mary and Lazarus, had their own homes and seemed able to provide very suitable hospitality for Jesus and his disciples.  But the first reading from the Book of Wisdom also suggests that something strange is going on here.  And what does a runaway slave have to do with any of it?

What we hear is that if we can barely understand how to cope with ordinary problems in everyday life, how can we possibly hope to fathom the wisdom of God?  For not only is God’s wisdom as far above human wisdom as the stars are above the earth, God’s wisdom often looks pretty foolish to us human beings.  It looks like madness, St Paul says.  Divine madness.  The folly of the Cross and the folly of total, uncompromising loyalty to an itinerant carpenter who was executed as a criminal and couldn’t even count on his best friends to stay by him to the end.

Today’s readings actually invite us to take Jesus very seriously.  He challenges us with outlandish statements, not so we will go out and hate others as we hate ourselves, but so that we will recognize that anything or anyone we prefer over God and God’s kingdom will to that extent bar us from that kingdom, keep us from the love and grace and healing forgiveness of God.  In fact, Jesus, you might recall, tells us to love others as we love ourselves.

These readings are not about possessions, but about possessing, about the desire to have, to control, to own something or someone.  True freedom, Jesus tells us, lies in the ability to let go, and more precisely, in actually letting go.  Letting go not just of everything, but of anything that comes between us and God.

A case in point is provided by Paul’s little letter to his friend Philemon.  It concerned a runaway slave named Onésimos, who apparently joined Paul at some point in his final trip to Rome.  Onesimos, by the way, means “useful,” and Paul includes a nice little play on words because of that. “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.”  Although he has grown to love Onesimos as a son, Paul wants him to go back to Philemon, his Christian master and owner.  Slavery, after all, means being owned by someone, not being free to be oneself.

Paul is sending Onesimos back with the request that Philemon treat him as a brother.  But why didn’t Paul simply ask him to free Onesimus and his other slaves once for all?  For that matter, why did the Christian church take 1700 years to speak out against slavery and demand abolition?  In this country, church officials and even religious congregations owned slaves before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Georgetown University’s pledge to repair some of the damage done by its early history of slave-owning — and selling — provides only one example.  There should be many more.  It might be noted, by the way, that the movement toward abolition was not a project of the hierarchy, but of maverick laymen and women, mostly Protestants.

As with marriage, the family, and other social institutions, Paul believed that all of them, including slavery, were about to wither away in the burning love of Christ’s return.  There were more urgent things on Paul’s mind than attacking one of the most deeply entrenched social structures of the ancient world.  He even called himself a slave of Christ and the gospel.

But there is more to it than that. It would have been relatively easy for Paul to ask Philemon to free Onesimos. Christians did often free their slaves.  It was a work of mercy.  But that would not have meant that Philemon would have loved him and forgiven him.  Paul in fact sends Onesimos back not as a runaway slave, but as a dear brother, in fact a blood brother — which is to say, an equal, a co-inheritor.  How could Philemon continue to regard Onesimos as a slave if he was in fact his own brother? Sadly, we don’t know how that part of the story ended.

Slavery of any kind, including domestic slavery, is an appalling failure of human respect and love.  But freeing slaves is not enough.  Following the American Civil War, the lot of many slaves was far worse after emancipation than before it.  Homeless, separated from their families, without prospect of work or assistance, many slaves starved to death, others fell into crime, or were taken cruel advantage of by speculators eager to make quick profits from cheap labor.  Another century would pass before justice would even begin to rectify the situation of black men and especially women in the United States.  Just last week we commemorated the March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963, with his prophetic cry, “Free at last, free at last, Thank God we are free at last!”

We still have far to go before we as a people recognize our Onesimos as a dear sister and brother, in fact, a blood-sister, and act accordingly.   The reason, of course, is obvious. And this brings us back to the words of Jesus.  It is not the slave who lacks freedom — it is the slave-owner, who is enslaved by his own possessiveness.  We do not so much possess things or persons, as they possess us.  Have you ever really tried to give away your possessions?  The best most of us can do is throw them out.  My old friend Brother Henry used to go around the priory at night fishing unwanted clothes out of the trash bins so he could wash them and take them to the Little Brothers of the Poor.

What Paul proposed was much more radical than merely freeing a runaway slave. What he asked for was divine folly.  So be warned.  Being a Christian, being the good news of Jesus Christ, is a little like dying.  If we believe what Jesus said in today’s gospel, it is a lot like dying.

So let us pray for the courage to die — to our selves, to our desire to possess, to our forgetfulness of other people’s needs and the God who so dearly, foolishly, loves us and wants us all to be free.