We are just two days past the Feast of Christmas on which we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world as a tiny babe in Bethlehem. The familiar stories bring comfort and hope: the young girl and her husband searching for a safe place for the birth to take place, the shepherds in their fields surprised by choirs of angels in the heavens; the wise men guided by a mysterious star. Each story bears a promise, a promise from God.
To Mary God’s messenger proclaimed a son, to be named Jesus, which means “savior.” He would be great, the Son of the Most High, and would receive from God the throne of his ancestor David. He would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there would be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)
To the shepherds the angel announced “good news of great joy for all the people,” namely that the child born this day in the city of David would be “a Savior… the Messiah, the Lord.” “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” the choir of angels sang, “and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (Luke 2:8-14)
So where are we now?
We have come, at last, to the end of one of the most bitterly contested national elections this country has ever seen. For many of us, finally naming a winner doesn’t bring the resolution we hoped it would; it feels like we’re all on the losing side in this contest. We are like two battered and weary fighters standing in the middle of the ring, faces bruised and bleeding, bent over with exhaustion, waiting for the referee to raise the arm of one of us. Our country is as divided as ever. Our political leaders are locked in seemingly irresolveable conflict that limits their effectiveness at home and diminishes our influence abroad. We are facing the largest public health crisis the world has ever known, with the numbers of new cases soaring to unprecedented heights in half of our states. We’re tired – of this pandemic, its restrictions, and all the pain and loss it has brought. We’re weary – of this toxic political deadlock, of the vilifying that characterizes election campaigns, of the threat of violence and lawsuits, of the seeming intractability of systemic racism, and of so much more.
What message of hope can the Church possibly offer?
Our answer begins with a reminder of who we are. We are human beings, created in the image of God, knowing ourselves to be loved by God in all our diversity. We are people who belong to God, who have been invited to live in a relationship with love with our Creator, who have been forgiven and redeemed by Christ, and who can reflect God’s glory in the world. The prophet tells us that God has called us by name, and we are precious and honored in God’s sight: every one of us. There is not a single human being that God does not love.
In his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius proposes a prayer exercise to help us consider “the call of Christ.” He asks us to imagine a charismatic leader, chosen by God and revered by all, who calls people to join a movement to end poverty and disease, and to do away with ignorance, oppression, and slavery – in short, to address the evils which beset humankind. The invitation comes with a warning: whoever chooses to follow must imitate this leader, by laboring in the day and watching by night, so that afterwards they may share in the victory just as they have shared in the work. Ignatius imagines that, in spite of the sacrifices, most people would want to follow a good and kind leader with so noble a purpose.
Dear Friends in Christ,
It is very possible that you are feeling exhausted and discouraged in the midst of the many crises we are facing now; especially here in the United States. The deadly Covid-19 virus continues to claim thousands of lives, with failed businesses, massive unemployment and school closings following in its wake. Unrest continues in our cities in response to ongoing attacks on people of color. Our deeply ingrained racism is being exposed again and again in every sphere of life: in education, health care, housing, employment, fair treatment under the law, access to food… Wild fires in California and hurricanes in Louisiana remind us of the high cost of environmental destruction and global warming, which we have failed to adequately address. Partisan politics has paralyzed our government and put the upcoming election at risk.
How can we respond creatively and courageously to such immense challenges? When we’re exhausted from the battle, how do we resist the temptation to simply give up and stop caring? What do we, as people of faith, have to offer our neighbors and colleagues in such demanding times? We are called to be people of hope, whose trust in God gives them the resilience to pick themselves up when they’ve fallen or been pushed down, and to continue to answer the call. We must be like sturdy trees, able to stand their ground in the face of violent winds because their roots reach deep into the soil from which comes their food and their strength.
We can find courage to fight on in the examples of those who have gone before us. I’ve been reflecting recently on the words and wisdom of Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983), a Dutch Christian woman who, with her father and sister, helped Jews escape the Nazis during World War II by hiding them in their home. The three were arrested and sent to the Nazi concentration camp at Ravensbrück ,where Corrie’s father and sister subsequently died. Corrie survived the terrible ordeal and went on to author The Hiding Place, which recounts the story of her family’s efforts and how she found hope in God while she was imprisoned at the concentration camp. Countless Christians have been inspired by her story. I recall some of her memorable quotes: “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still;” “Now I know in my experience that Jesus’ light is stronger than the biggest darkness;” “Love is larger than the walls that shut it in;” and this one, which has spoken to me recently, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”
These are uncertain times, surely, and none of us knows – or can ever know – what the future will bring: not only in our lives but in the lives of our children and grandchildren, our country and our world. We face so many challenges, so many unknowns, and there is so much at stake. But we are not the first human beings to face daunting challenges, nor will we be the last. We fight on – for justice, for peace, for the welfare of all people, for the health and safety of all creation – working as if all depended upon us (which it does), while praying as urgently and persistently as if all depended upon God (which it does).
May God bless and keep you in these troubled times, and nourish and strengthen you for the fight.
Br. David Vryhof, SSJE
Jeremiah is sent by God to the potter’s house, where he learns an important lesson. The image of the potter fashioning a vessel on his potter’s wheel would have been very familiar to Jeremiah’s audience. It is familiar territory for us, too, since the shaping vessels of clay by hand on a potter’s wheel is still done in much the same way today.
What does Jeremiah notice as he observes the potter at work?
He notices first the clay. As he watched the potter shape and mold the clay, Jeremiah knew that he was looking at a picture of himself, and of every person, and of every nation. We are the clay, fashioned into useful vessels by God, the potter. Jeremiah isn’t the only prophet to draw on this image: Isaiah and Zechariah also use it, as does Paul in his letter to the Romans. Jeremiah watched as the clay was fashioned into a vessel. Then, some imperfection in the clay spoiled it in the potter’s hand and the potter crushed it and began the process again.
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
The focal point of much of Jesus’ preaching and teaching in the gospels is “the kingdom of God.”
The opening of Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus “came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mk 1:14-15) Of course, this kingdom that Jesus proclaims is quite unlike the kingdoms of the world that we human beings know from experience:
God’s reign is not about exerting authority; it’s about offering service;
it is not about dominance and power; it’s about humility;
it is not about being first or greatest; it’s about identifying with the lowly and the poor.
Here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus employs a number of images or metaphors to introduce the concept of God’s kingdom to his hearers, most of whom were peasants, subsistence farmers, living in an agrarian society. Jesus speaks about agriculture, about planting and harvesting, about sowing seeds – images easily understood by the people. His images regularly startle and surprise his listeners, and us. Over and over again, his point seems to be that this kingdom of God is never quite what we expect.
Sermon for Independence Day, 2020
Deut. 10:17-21; Matt. 5:43-48
It seems quite a natural thing to have warm feelings for one’s homeland. Even today, when the majority of Americans report that they don’t feel proud of their country right now, most of us still feel a strong bond of connection and devotion to this land and to this nation. All of us have been stirred to pride by parts of our collective history, and all of us have felt the shame of other parts of our story. There have been times when we have been leaders in the world and models of courage and compassion, and other times when as a nation, we have been dishonest, scheming, and manipulative; when we have flexed our power to achieve and maintain a place of supremacy in the world at the expense of peoples and nations who are weaker and poorer. Experiencing this mixture of pride and shame can root us in a place of humility, where we can acknowledge the great gifts this country has given to the world, and at the same time look honestly and regretfully at its equally great shortcomings and sins.
We must never leave this place of humility, and always be on guard against arrogance and pride. There are some of us who have put devotion to our country above all else, refusing to acknowledge its failures and valuing it more highly that it deserves. Patriotism is our religion, and America is the god we worship. Others of us see nothing but failures and injustices, refusing to recognize the goodness in our fellow countrymen and in the institutions we have created for our governance. We find ourselves mired in apathy, cynicism and negativity.
As Christians we are bound to remember that we belong first and foremost not to our country, but to God. Our true citizenship is in the kingdom of heaven. Our identity as people of God takes priority over our national identity. We pledge allegiance to God alone.
Weighty choices in life require us to consider the risk involved in taking one path over against another. This is a skill we’re having to employ almost daily now as a result of the danger posed by the coronavirus. Will we risk taking public transportation, or going to the grocery store, or running an errand, when we know a deadly virus is on the loose? When will the risk be low enough that we can begin to gather again with others and return to our work or to places of worship? Knowing that the stakes are high makes this risky business.
I Corinthians 12:3b-13
Today’s lessons present us with two very different accounts of how Jesus’ disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The first account, recorded in the Gospel of John, takes place in the evening of the first day of the week; that is, on Easter day. The disciples are gathered in a house with its doors locked shut. The gospel writer tells us they are afraid and explains why: they are imagining that the same people who put Jesus to death might now come after them. Without warning, and apparently without knocking or using the door, Jesus appears in the room, standing among them. “Peace be with you,” he says. He then shows them his hands and his side, proving that he is the same Jesus they knew, still bearing the marks of his crucifixion. The disciples receive him gladly, and he responds by ordering them into the world, just as the Father had sent him into the world. Then, he breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Finally, along with the commission to go into the world and the gift of the Holy Spirit, he grants them power to forgive people’s sins, or to refuse them forgiveness.
It’s a gentle episode – emotional perhaps, but not terrifying; surprising, but not overwhelming. We can imagine Jesus greeting them in a calm, quiet voice to soothe their shock at his sudden appearance: “Peace be with you.” The Spirit comes to them in such a gentle way: Jesus simply breathes on them. The Hebrew word for “spirit” means “breath” or “wind.” Here it comes as a gentle breath.
John 16: (16-23a) 23b-28
It’s difficult these days not to read every gospel text from the perspective of those whose lives have been so drastically altered by the coronavirus. Encountering this text from John 16, the word that captured my attention was the word “joy.” “You will have pain,” Jesus tells his disciples, “but your pain will turn into joy” (v. 20). Of course he is talking here of the pain the disciples will experience when Jesus is separated from them as he goes forward to his passion and death. “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while and you will see me,” he says (v. 17). He knows they will suffer; he knows that the events of the coming days will test and try them; and he knows he cannot protect them from this pain. But he wants to keep their eyes fixed not on the pain, but on the joy that is to come.
“You will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.” To help them grasp this promise, he offers the example of a woman in childbirth. The pain of birthing a child is intense, “but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (v. 21) There is joy on the other side of this suffering, he promises. “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joyfrom you”(v. 22).
“The Father himself loves you,” he assures them, and therefore they can ask for whatever they need in his name and the Father will give it to them (v. 23-27). “Ask and you will receive,” he tells them, “so that your joy may be complete” (v. 24). Once again, God intends joy for his people, not endless sorrow, and God will provide all that they need to find real and lasting joy.