Monthly Archives: February 2014

A sermon for Wall Street – and for me

I dare any preacher to read today’s passage of James 5:1-6 to a gathering of bankers, large landowners, rich donors, or Wall Street traders.

Come now, you rich, weep and wail over the miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches are rotting… Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts…. You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have felt happy while others were murdered. You have easily condemned and murdered the just one…

I doubt few preachers would get away with this – unless they spiritualize the message.

But as I see the large numbers of people on the back of cattle trucks coming back from picking coffee, I realize this is a message that needs to be heard today, especially in place like Honduras.

As I see the building projects here in Santa Rosa or visit Central America’s largest mall in Tegucigalpa ,and pass by the houses made of sticks and mud, with dirt floors, I realize that James was not only talking about first century economics.

The gap between rich and poor is a scandal, especially when the rich call themselves followers of Christ.

I know there are rich who do share their gifts with those in need, but studies show that the poor are generally more generous that the rich who often give to benefit charities that assist their own interests.

But it is easy to cast aspersions on the rich. Not only have I benefited from the generosity of several people with money, but I have much more money than people here. What I get each month from my Social Security check is a third more than the salary of some professionals I know.

I recalled all this when I read today’s Gospel, Mark 9: 41-50. Jesus castigates those who harm the little ones and then remarks that, if your hand, your foot, or your eye causes you to sin, you should dismember yourself, lest you be thrown into Gehenna, “where the worms do not die and the fire never goes out.”

I immediately thought of the night a few months ago when I found that book worms had eaten into several of my books and destroyed several of them beyond repair.

Book devoured by bookworms

Book devoured by bookworms

Panic!

“Where your treasure is, there is your heart,” Jesus said.

Am I really free of the covetousness that James denounced in the rich?

As I often do, I also read today’s Gospel in Spanish and looked at the Greek. In some versions of this Gospel the phrase “where the worms never die and the fire never goes out” is found not just in verse 48, but also in verses 44 and 46 which are left out of many English translations. Not just once, but three times we are warned of the devouring worms and the unquenchable fire.

book worms at work

book worms at work

So I too need to let myself by challenged by Jesus, especially by the words of James. It may make we squirm – and hopefully be converted.

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God willing

When I first spent time in Central America I noticed that people, most notably the poor and the people in the countryside, often used the phrase “Primero Dios” which literally means “First of all God.” However, I think it is often being used like “God willing.”

I also often hear people saying “Si Dios quiere,” if God wills it, when talking about a possible future event.

Ojala” is another word which is often used here to express hope that something will happy. But the word comes from Arabic and is closely related to the Arabic “Insha’Allah,” which means “If God wills.”

That’s part of what James is writing about in today’s first reading (James 4:13-17):

You have no idea what tomorrow will bring….
…you should say “God willing, we will live and do this or that.”

We from the north presume we cannot only plan things but make them happen as we plan them. (This is a real temptation for me.)

We think we have it all under control.

But the message is that we cannot control all – and it is hubris to think we can. We think we can boast of our plans.

This does not mean that we shouldn’t plan – but that we should leave space for God to work with us – or despite us.

God willing.

 

Near to God

These days the first lectionary reading is from the Letter of James, a letter full of much wisdom for the community of faith.

James is particularly hard on the rich and those who ignore the poor. For him, what is really important in following God is real openness to God and others. James 1:27 puts it bluntly:

Religion pure and undefiled is this: taking care of widows and orphans in their distress and keeping oneself unspotted from the world.

This morning the selection (James 4: 1-10) starts out with a biting critique of our desires as the source war and conflicts.

But what struck me was the first part of verse 8:

 Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.

Draw near to a God who is always near – even though we do not feel his presence.

Bring yourself to an awareness of God’s presence.

For God is always drawing nearer and nearer to us.

Open your heart and be present.

Not always easy – but always possible – for God is always near.

The foolishness of love

The wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.
1 Corinthians 3: 9

 What can be as crazy as loving your enemies, as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel, Matthew 5: 44?

What can be as foolhardy as praying for your persecutors – except praying that they may die before killing you?

An “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” makes sense, until you realize, with Gandhi, that taking an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.

Love your enemies.

We won’t even talk to those who hold a political position different from ours.

This is not just a problem in the polarized situation in the US. It is a problem here in the deeply polarized climate of Honduras. A friend recently told me of a base community in which two families have stopped coming – since they are in conflict largely because they supported different political parties (the Nationalists and LIBRE) in the last election.

Pray for your persecutors.

You’ve got to be kidding; they are out to kill me and take away my liberty.

But Saint Polycarp, the second century bishop of Smyrna whose feast is today, made sure that the soldiers who came to take him away had dinner. He went off to pray as they ate.

Closer to our time, one day, Dom Helder Camara, the twentieth century bishop of Recife, Brazil, opened the door of his humble dwelling to a man who was sent to assassinate him. The man demurred – “I cannot kill a man of God.”

Praying for persecutors, responding in love to them is not going to assure that we are not killed or injured. But it can make a difference in our lives and in the world.

Consider the example of Bud Welch whose daughter Julie was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. It was not easy and it took him a while but he went and visited the father of one of the bombers, Timothy McVeigh.

Bud came to realize that it would be wrong to kill McVeigh and the other bomber, for “the day that we might kill either one of them would be a day of vengeance and rage, and vengeance and rage is exactly why Julie and 167 others are dead.”

How to begin this?

Very simply, pray each day for someone with whom you are in conflict. Let God change your heart as well as theirs.

When I was a kid we prayed at the end of each Mass for the conversion of Russia. We forgot to pray for the conversion of our own country, the United States.

We forgot what Thomas Merton wrote at the end of one of his most poignant articles “The Root of War Is Fear”:

…instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmongers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

Let us pray for our own conversion and then we may be able to begin to love our enemies.

How foolish!

 

 

 

 

Young heroes of the White Rose

For decades I have been collecting quotations that touch me. Since high school I have been fascinated by people who stand up for justice, identify with the poor, and work for peace. About twenty years ago I began to put together a calendar of these heroes and quotes from them.

Each morning I check the calendar and I am often moved by remembering the many women and men who are witnesses to love, very often based in a deep faith in Christ.

Every once in a while I am reminded of some persons who have touched me in a steep way by their witness.

Today is the anniversary of the execution of three members of the White Rose, a group mostly of young students – Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox – who made a courageous witness against Nazism. On February 22, 1943, Sophie and Hans Scholl (sister and brother) and Christoph Probst were executed in Munich. Others were later apprehended and executed.

They didn’t start a revolutionary movement. Their major weapon was an illegal duplicating machine which they used to print thousands of leaflets that they distributed in defiance of Hitler.

“We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.”

I am touched that these young people had more courage than many religious leaders in Germany and elsewhere to denounce – in clear words – the evil that Nazism was.

They challenge me to speak boldly, yet peacefully and lovingly, in the face of the evils around us.

And, as far as I can discern, they did this because of a deep faith in God.

That gave them a great courage that moved them to rouse themselves from a survival ethic. As Sophie Scholl wrote:

The real damage is done by those millions who want to “survive.” The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.

How will we burn with the love of God and others in our hearts?

 

 

God chose the poor

Did not God choose
those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith
and heirs of the Kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?
James 2: 5

The preferential option for the poor is central to a faith lived in the light of the Gospels.

It is an option not because we can opt out of it; it is an option because we are called to opt for the poor, to place the poor at the center of our lives, as God has.

This is not a political option, even though it has political and social ramifications. This is not an option for class warfare, although the poor often feel that the rich are fighting to keep them down.

It is above all an option for Christ – who became poor for our sake (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Pope Francis makes this very clear in paragraph 186 of his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel:

Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members.

This is just what Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the fathers of Liberation Theology, has said, as noted in In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez.

…there are “mil maneras,” a thousand ways to practice the preferential option for the poor. Finding our own way is the task of our discernment and the goal of our spirituality. What must be clear, though, is that to follow Jesus implies priority for the poor.

I want to emphasize that the preferential option for the poor is not made because the poor are somehow better than others, more virtuous or noble. Idealizing the poor would be the wrong basis for the spirituality we are describing. Often the poor are quite generous and beautiful people, but sometimes not. Nor are our motives for aiding the poor always pure; there can be a temptation to self-congratulation and ego-boosts in this work. So in our spirituality it is supremely important that each of us refines the basis of our preferential option for the poor to say: I accompany them not because they are all good, or because I am all good, but because God is good. The on-going discernment necessary to see that this is a theocentric option— centered in God’s love and life— is particularly suited to habits of communal and personal prayer, practices so central to Christian spirituality.

So let us contemplate Jesus and see how we are called to chose the poor of this world, as God has.

 

You idiot!

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
“You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.”
But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment;
whoever says, “You fool,” will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Matthew 5: 21-22

 I plead guilty.

Several times a week I call people idiots, though not to their face. It’s my way of responding to the way that some people drive  here in Honduras – passing four cars in a row, sometimes on a curve; driving in the middle of the road or on the left side, sometimes around a steep curve; stopping in the middle of the road and blocking traffic; driving incredibly fast on a dirt road, like a bat out of hell. And I thought Boston drivers were bad!

Somehow this anger, frustration, expressed by calling them idiots, out of their hearing, may be indicative of a lack of real peace and tranquility or may hide a lack of real concern for the other.

I don’t know how Jesus would look at that, though I have to examine myself a bit more on this.

Yet as I read the news here and see various posts on Facebook, I see the temptation to demonize those we disagree with, to call them idiots, to call them subversives or worse.

This is not limited to the conservatives. Many liberals and radicals also do this.

This is sad and keeps us from seeing the other as a brother or sister. Instead of dealing with the real differences in friendly – even heated – dialogue, we find it easier to categorize them.

And so we come off as the good guys and they are the stupid idiots.

But God calls us to recognize them as brothers.

In this first of the series of contrasts in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us not to be angry with our brother – our brother (or sister) – and not just with a nameless other.

We are all brothers and sisters and Jesus asks us to restore the relationship of brother and sister.

If not, as one translation puts it,

Whoever calls a brother or sister “Fool!”
is liable of being thrown into the fire of hell.

 And so the way out of hell is to recognize those idiots are our sisters and brothers – as fallible and as graced as we are.