The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

The opening words of today’s gospel passage, from Matthew chapter 10, and Jesus says to his apostles, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Just those words “at hand” imply close by, within reach, not far.  Often enough, we think of any kind of kingdom of heaven as far off, distant, in the life to come.  And yet these words of Jesus in today’s gospel invite us to look more closely at what’s around us, at the world as it is right now, and to be alert for signs of that kingdom present within the everyday circumstances of everyday life.  

Sometimes it’s not easy to find, maybe especially in these days of high tension in our culture. And yet Jesus lived in a high-tension culture of his own, amid violence, poverty, oppression by the occupying power of Rome, and anxiety over what might come next.  Even amid all that, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  May we keep our eyes open for signs of that kingdom, and be people who witness to that kingdom by our lives.

Brother Xavier

I get a card in the mail every now and then from one of our friars who is in a nursing home in Philadelphia.  His name is Brother Xavier, and I used to work with him when I was assigned to St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia.  People give him note cards and he writes out messages.  I received a card from him yesterday, and he writes things such as “As for me, one day at a time, sweet Jesus,” or “I am at peace, Stevie, we are in God’s hand, he is in control,” or “Part of our life of faith, Stevie, is to give or entrust our life to the Lord,” or “It’s all in God’s hands, he knows us better than we know ourselves (Psalm 139),” or “Steve, as you sing (and I don’t sing!) you have to decide to follow Jesus.”  He signs the card, “Brother Xavier, a child of God.”

He is confined to a nursing home where, I hear, one-third of the patients have tested positive for the virus.  He cannot leave his room.  He cannot receive visitors.  He served for three decades at St. Francis Inn and is beloved by many in the city.  He is 84 years old, uses a walker, and has limited use of his left hand.  He is confined, he wishes it were different, and yet he radiates a sense of inner peace and faith. As friars, we learn much from those who go before us.

Co-laborers in the Vineyard

I was very much taken by a story in the Sports section of yesterday’s New York Times.  The story told of a baseball player for the Oakland A’s who, amid all the racial tension in the land, decided to open up his Twitter feed to questions and comments on the issue of race.  The player is black.  And so he received questions from people who were struggling to understand what was going on, who were disturbed by the tension surrounding the issue, who didn’t understand why athletes kneel during the National Anthem, and who at the same time wanted to be supportive of black civil rights.

It was a remarkable story in the way this player received the questions: not with anger, not with accusations, but with open-ended and understanding questions which allowed a dialogue to take place.  And you could see how those with questions appreciated being understood and being met where they were.  And that seems to be the key to all this: listening, mutual respect, and from that, a way forward in which each side hears the other.

The gospel today, from Matthew 9, has Jesus telling his disciples that the harvest is abundant and the laborers are few, and it’s an image he gives them of being co-laborers in the vineyard of everyday life.  I have to believe this baseball player, by his way of engagement with the world and with the people on his Twitter feed, is a co-laborer of the gospel through his kindness, understanding, and way of seeking reconciliation among peoples.  And an invitation to us, as well, to do the same.

Remembering Our Brother

Yesterday we heard the news that one of our friars, Fr. Chris Posch, pastor of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, died early Sunday morning.  He had been in the hospital for several weeks with COVID-like symptoms, and his death was listed as due to pneumonia and septic shock.  Chris was 58 years old. We had been receiving updates on his condition over the past few weeks, and the most recent updates described his condition as declining, and yet still, hearing the news yesterday was a shock to all of us. 

Chris was dedicated to ministry among the Latino population.  I first knew him when I was a newly assigned priest in 2001 at St. Paul’s in Wilmington, Delaware.  Chris was a bundle of energy and totally committed to his work among the Spanish-speaking population.  In Delaware, he would drive a van around the rural parts of the state, meeting with people, developing lay leaders, planting seeds for the gospel among the poor and forgotten.  He would minister among inmates at the prison, among workers at the horse track, and among people in the neighborhoods of Wilmington.  And he would do it all with a great sense of joy.  

We are all a little stunned by this, and we miss our brother Chris.  I remember well his presence, his humility, his dedication to the gospel.  I was in the church this morning, in the early morning quiet and stillness, with light shining in the windows, and I imagine Chris present now in the eternal kingdom with all the saints in light, receiving the fullness of what he witnessed to in his own life.  May he rest in peace.

14th Sunday – July 5, 2020

If you follow Jesus throughout the gospels, you follow him on a difficult journey.  He is received and welcomed along the way.  He is ignored or rejected as well, and that must have taken a toll on him.  And we see that in today’s gospel passage.

He seems tired, worn out.  He needs a break.  He has just come from some towns which heard him preach, and as always, some listen, some do not.  He needs to pause, to gather himself.

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” These are gentle words, words for a hot summer day, words that invite a lawn chair in the shade in the back yard and a cool glass of lemonade with ice.  

They are words that are addressed to you and to me, words that meet us in a summer of unrest and uncertainty.  They are words that recognize that we are carrying a lot in these days.  The list is long:

  • The unknowability of a virus that has affected everything.
  • Deep divisions in our country around the issues of politics and race.
  • Uncertainty over how to plan for anything in the coming months.
  • A rising sense of anxiety over what the future might hold.

And so in the middle of all that, the gospel today comes to us and simply recognizes that it’s out there, that to be alive in the summer of 2020 means, more than any other summer in our lifetimes, that we are carrying a lot, and it’s not just “those” who labor and are burdened, but “you” who labor and are burdened.  The words meet us individually, specifically.  The words ask each of us, what burdens are you carrying today?

What were the burdens the people around Jesus would have known as they walked with him and listened to him along the way?  To be Jewish in the first century, as Jesus and the people around him were, was to be living under the yoke of the Roman Empire and to be anxiously awaiting some kind of Messiah who would restore Israel’s glory.

And so as people walked with Jesus, they must have told him about their lives, and he must have heard them as they walked along the way.  Like any person of any time, they must have spoken about their hopes for their children.  They must have spoken about their hopes for peace in a violent world.  

They must have spoken about their hopes for some kind of reconciliation and peace with people who were somehow different from them: different languages, races, nationalities.  They must have spoken about how this hope for Israel’s glory somehow seemed far off, unrealistic, and how hard it was to hold onto faith in a gracious and merciful God in a mostly pagan world. And as he walked along and listened, he must have heard all that, and he must have realized how tired they all were.

And so in today’s gospel story, he finds a cool, shaded spot by the side of the road.  He draws some fresh water from a well.  And he invites those who are with him to find a spot in the shade, drink from a cup of cool water, and for a time, to lay all these burdens aside.  

He says “come to me”, and amid the burdens and weariness of everyday life, they are three words of simple invitation to a whole other way of living a life.  There are burdens that come with living under an empire, Roman or otherwise:  you have to fit in, you have to produce, you have to get things done efficiently and on time, you have to buy into the empire’s whole way of life, and there is no room for anything different.  And it leads to exhaustion on all levels.  

The Roman Empire is gone, but what other “empires” exist in our culture, what ways of living that wear us down and hold us down?  Is it a culture of work that allows little or no down-time in our lives?  Is it a culture of social media which can build up and tear down peoples’ lives instantly?  Is it a culture of beauty which defines who is or is not beautiful?  Is it a culture of sports and entertainment which distracts us from deeper questions of civic engagement and justice?  Is it a culture of technology which more and more tells us who we are and what we should do?

And these words of Jesus today, amid the burdens of empire and belonging and division and mistrust, these words that tell us “come to me, and I will give you rest.”  Come to me, he says, who sees you not as a product of technology, not as one defined by someone else’s idea of beauty or belonging, not as someone defined only by your work, not as a product of the empire. 

Come to me, he says, in your anxiety and your fear and your tiredness, and despite everything the empire tells you about what it means to belong or to matter, I will tell you who you are: a child of God, walking along the way amid all kinds of doubts and uncertainties, with you on the way. 

Rise and Walk

The gospel today is from Matthew 9, and it’s a healing of a paralytic on a stretcher, and so a common theme in the gospels: someone is sick, or limited in some way, and it’s in these situations that Jesus enters the scene. We sometimes might think “magic” – Jesus says some words and the sick person is made well, and we think, wouldn’t that be nice for someone in my life?  That a person with cancer, or COVID, or some other disease or illness, might be made well?  

The gospel stories are not stories about magic words.  The people in these stories are made well by Jesus, but they eventually die.  And so what do these stories tell us about Jesus and healing?  In today’s story, we hear of a person who is “paralyzed” – can’t move, stuck.  Jesus, as he does so often in the gospels, heals the person.  Jesus says “Rise and walk” and we hear that the paralyzed person “rose.”  The use of the word “rise” is important here; it’s the same word that is used to describe the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  

And so the whole passage today is a kind of miniature picture of a pattern that we see in the life of Jesus, of what we call the “paschal mystery.”  Death and suffering are real.  We often find ourselves “paralyzed” in one way or another – stuck, can’t move, no horizon visible.  And in that, in and through the ministry of Jesus, his words of “rise and walk” – two verbs that speak of a lifting from what has struck us down, and a continuation on some kind of way.  

Jesus himself knew “rise and walk” as he himself found himself paralyzed on a cross, no apparent future, no future horizon, and yet – “rise and walk” as the way of God the Father, always creating something new, present amid suffering and loss, inviting us to continue on some sort of way that is continuously unfolding in front of us, as we see through the eyes of faith.

Amos

The first reading for the Mass for the day today is from the prophet Amos.  Prophets stand in the midst of their culture, of their time, and speak, often critically, of how the people might be falling short in living a life of faith in God.  Prophets are usually reluctant; they don’t ask for and often don’t want to respond to the call to speak prophetically, and yet God is persistent.  And so the prophets speak.  

In today’s reading from Amos (Amos 5), we hear Amos speak in the name of the Lord about how the peoples’ worship is empty: “I spurn your feasts,” “I take no pleasure in your solemnities,” “your offerings I will not accept.”  The passage then turns: “If you would offer me burnt offerings” – it’s as if the Lord is saying, if you continue with your worship, if you keep coming to church every Sunday, if you offer me something of your life – “if” you do that, then, “let justice surge like water.”  

And there the connection is made.  Worship leads to justice.  Worship is not just for oneself, worship is not just something to “get out of the way.”  Worship leads to a widening attentiveness to God’s wide world, to God’s people as our neighbor in some way, to concern for the forgotten, the lost, the excluded.  Jesus himself, in his public ministry, knew the words of the prophets and made them his own as he himself walked the byways of his native land.  He spoke and lived as a prophet himself, living into the words of the prophets who came before him.  And so these words of Amos call us to the ways in which we look for “justice to surge like water” in our own complex and divided times.

Dark Skies and Great Calm

The gospel story today is from Matthew 8:23-27, and it tells of a violent storm which comes up on the sea, of a group of frightened disciples in the boat, and of a sleeping Jesus who is woken up by the disciples and who finally calms the storm.  On one level, it’s a sea story.  The sea is always a place in which the unexpected and fearful may come up at any time: see “The Perfect Storm” as an example of that, a book and a movie that tells of a storm off the coast of Massachusetts.  Waves can come up from all sides; in today’s story, the boat is “swamped by waves.”  A person can lose one’s bearings in a storm on the water, can lose sight of the security of the shore.  

And that’s what happens in today’s story.  The disciples in the boat are frightened, even terrified.  The known landscape of their world has given way to high waves, dark skies, complete disorientation.  And the one they trust is “asleep” in the boat: no apparent concern there, doesn’t he see what’s going on all around them?  They wake him, he looks around him and asks them a curious question: “why are you terrified?” They must have thought him mad: couldn’t he see what was going on all around them?  

But he “rebukes the wind and the sea” – it almost sounds like he’s admonishing the wind and the sea, telling these forces of nature that they have no power over them.  And was this, for him, some sort of anticipation of his own fate to come?  Powers and forces that overwhelm, powers and forces that overwhelmed him as he stood trial and walked his way of the cross, on his way to a lonely hill outside Jerusalem where he was crucified.  

All bearings lost, no way of knowing the way, a sense of complete abandonment, and yet – “O you of little faith” he says to this group in the boat, as if to say, yes, you can expect the waves and the storms and the dark skies, and yes, life will often seem like you’re on a little boat in the middle of the sea, but remember always that you are loved, you are counted, you are seen and known by the God who creates and sustains all things.  

And following this, “there was great calm.”  As if this frightened group was reminded that, even amid everything that happens in the strange and unknowable and up-and-down journey of life, in the end the Lord of the Universe, who creates and sustains all things, is present in all of it. 

Peter and Paul

Today on our church calendar we celebrate the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul.  Both are complex characters.  Peter is an ordinary fisherman, called to follow, and at times he is deeply faithful and trusting and at other times he falls away from that faith and trust.  Paul one day is on the road to Damascus, ready to persecute this new sect of Jesus-followers, when he has an experience on the way of the risen Jesus which turns him around completely.  

Both deeply human characters, caught up in their lives, caught up in what they know, and after an encounter with Jesus, caught up in an entirely new way of living which changes the direction and orientation of their lives.  And maybe that’s a sort of summary of what discipleship is all about: encounter and reorientation.  It’s the person of Jesus, who meets us on the way, and whose life and way of life is so compelling, that changes us, if we are open to that change.  

That offer of life has no promise of safety or security; both Peter and Paul met their deaths under persecution in Rome.  But clearly for Peter and Paul there was something liberating about their encounter with Jesus which gave them courage to live their lives as followers of Jesus.  And that faith passes to us as well.

Listening and Acting

From today’s gospel reading, from Matthew chapter 7:  “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” These are words addressed to the disciples of Jesus, which means not only those who heard these words in their original setting, but those like us who hear them today.  The Word of God is always alive and new and active in the world.  

What is asked of “everyone” in this passage?  That “everyone” (us!) both listen, and act.  To listen of course means that we hear these words of Jesus, hear his words that speak something of the divine hope for all of us: that we remember that we are created in the image and likeness of God, that we hear the divine call to be, in our own way, bearers of holiness in our lives and in our world.  

And to “act.”  To act means to follow through on what we hear of the Word, and to make it visible and known.  What are the ways we can do this?  There are multiple ways, all found in our everyday lives:  speak a word of forgiveness, or of mercy, or of kindness.  Be attentive and informed on issues of justice and peace.  Look out for the outsider, whoever she or he may be in our society.  Keep a constant eye for the ways of connecting “listening” and “acting” on these words of Jesus, which always invite us to a deeper recognition of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

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