Friday, September 15, 2017

But who’s counting?

Peter asks Jesus a question about forgiveness. In response, Jesus tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The exaggerations, hyperbole, huge numbers, and extreme reactions, push us into a theater of the absurd. A huge debt is forgiven freely, then a small one is choked out of a second debtor, and then the first debt is reinstated - plus torture! No forgiveness holiday here, not once a line is crossed. But it all goes to show up the real absurdity: trying to quantify grace, trying to qualify mercy. Only how often do I forgive another member of the church? Seven times - that’s a lot! To put up with. Fool me once, twice… but seventy-seven times is extravagant, absurd: it’s past counting. It’s almost as if… almost as much… as God has already forgiven us. Not you or me individually, guilty, but the whole human race, the whole creation, is in need of reconciliation that is beyond its own means to achieve. Anselm of Canterbury said only man must pay the price, but only God can do it. (Cur Deus Homo) So how often, how can we…? Only in the capacity of God’s grace, which is ever abundant and always new.

September 17, 2017.
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, August 13, 2017

after the storm

One day someone caught me out, making a lot of noise, apparently, for he mocked me, "Raar! Raar! Raar!" A guy making big noises meaning nothing.

Well sometimes maybe we think storm and noise and thunder clouds will make the answer. But perhaps peace and silence, the peace and silence after the storm, may be where God speaks to us.

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Proper 14, Year A. 

1 Kings 19:9-18Psalm 85:8-13Romans 10:5-15Matthew 14:22-33

"I will listen to what the Lord is saying" psalm setting by Armand Russell of Psalm 85:8-13, on the brink of the first Gulf War.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Day of Dread and Miracles

The day had not started well. Cousin John, his mother had heard quicken in the womb, that first kick! Was dead. Dead. Herod Antipas had had him killed - for a lark, for a trick, to show off to his guests - and to a woman and a girl. And so he had reason to be disconsolate, and reason to be afraid.

He was not alone. No one would let him be.

Crowds gathered. They had heard the news. The Baptizer, the one who heralded a new day for Israel, had been executed. The powers of this world were strong. And so they came to Jesus. The new shepherd. The good shepherd. Can you feed us?

And maybe that is a miracle too. For he turned their hearts as he turned his own, from fear to faith. Dread walked the earth, but they were no longer afraid.

He did feed them - or rather, taught them that their Father did.

Sit down. And they sat down.

Share what you have. And they broke the bread, and shared it out.

And soon all were well fed.

Jesus’ disciples were exultant. They were released from anxiety and felt ! like ! kings !

So off they went, rowing as they had rowed before, this time with a miraculous catch on land, and a good star to guide them. Singing they rowed and sailed, see you later, Jesus.

He was ashore. Alone. Silence, in the breeze. And he went up the hill. Maybe on top he’d recall the blessings he’d once preached there, the happiness of the poor, the blessedness of those who seek God.

Quiet, and remembering. And then, full of his Father’s new sense of purpose, he left off grieving, and sought out the others, his friends.

They were out on the sea by now. And they did not expect him to come to them as he did.

Remember John the Baptist was just dead. Fearsome forces were at work. And now like the ghost of Banquo or the spirit of Hamlet’s Father, a figure came to them - across the water.

It’s me, boys. Don’t worry.

Gathering up his courage Peter called: if it is you, call me to come to you. (No ghost would do that, right?)

And Jesus said, what he always said: Come.

What is there to do but follow?

And out on the water he came, Peter came, Rock of the Disciples, faithful … to a point. The wind was sharp and he felt it cut through his warm heart.

Jesus, save me!

And Jesus did. What he always did … to a point.

The wind dropped at last. You really are God’s Son, aren’t you? And they were no longer afraid.


Did anyone see last week’s headline? Remember it? The Economist had: Venezuela in Chaos.

Chaos. Fear. A world of disorder.

It is the Lord, it is God, who moved, his Spirit like a breath upon the waves, as he ordered the chaos at the beginning of Genesis. It is God, who moved, his voice like the sound of sheer silence, as Elijah waited in the cave. It is God, who came, walking on the water, stiling the chop and quelling the storm.

It is now … that time. The always-time. When the ways of this world and its rulers are not enough.

And so we turn to God, again. For peace. We shall listen to what the Lord is saying. Words of peace and not of fear. Righteousness and peace shall kiss each other, and this world’s woes will be brought to an end.

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Transfiguration: Theory and Practice

(Mount Tabor)

Looking ahead to this Sunday's feast of the Transfiguration, I thought first of the remoteness of the cosmic figure revealed on Mount Tabor, to only his most intimate disciples and only to be spoken of or understanding attempted until after his resurrection. Then I began to think of other figures "clothed in white" and even the "woman clothed in the sun" of the Apocalypse (12:1). Thomas Merton wrote an essay titled after that verse. But then, even that led me to another vision of people all "shining like the sun": Merton's vision as he waited for a ride back to the monastery after a dental appointment:

Thomas Merton

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

― Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Merton’s joy was at the revelation that he was part of a race all transcendent, but one in which God himself had become incarnate. There is awe and wonder and humility in that. As C. S. Lewis once said, to be a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve, there is enough in that to be both humbled and glorified.

Have you ever known someone whose face was shining, whose encounter with grace or God or love or forgiveness so lightened the load of the world on their shoulders that they looked relieved and joyful? Or just in a moment of inspired perception you saw them as they always were, as Donald Nicholl says, “in aspiration”, as the Holy Spirit conceived them? A reality, an identity, deeper than sin can ever reach?

One time Donald saw a young woman of a lower class (he’s English) dressed up and made up for a Saturday night (or a Sunday morning) and at first he judged her sharply, to be cheap, as her outfit of clothes and her choice of coiffure were not the best. But then he countered himself, she is doing very well. And so he said, inside himself, something British that meant, “you go, girl!” For he felt he finally saw her a bit with the eyes of God, the eyes of love, “in aspiration.”

It’s a lame example, isn’t it? But Donald was himself striving toward perception - with openness - and so perhaps we should see his anecdote and his attitude themselves “in aspiration.”

God is not finished with us yet - and yet he is, “in aspiration”, fully conscious and complete in conception of what we are called to be, meant to be, and in some ways already are, if only we saw it, beneath all the layers of fault or failing or even just ordinary crust of everyday inattention.

So it is that not only Jesus shines with the sun - we are to be caught up, too, along with Moses, Elijah, Peter and James and John, in a vision and a revelation of how God means us to be...

That openness, that vulnerability, that Donald Nicholl exposed to a roomful of California undergraduates, is of a piece with Mary’s own openness - in that “Woman Clothed with the Sun” essay, Thomas Merton points this out. Receiving the incarnate Word, as Mary did, receiving the Word of the Law, as Moses did, receiving the self-awareness dawning in us, as my teacher did, all involve a willingness to surrender, a willingness to accept defeat of ego by a greater purpose: to serve, to reveal, to accept, the presence and working in us of the spirit of God.

That’s a hard one to sell. How do we know that God is by? That God is near us, and that the light is shining in us, through us?

Not sure we need to answer that. More compelling and more convincing is the call to witness to the light itself, not our ‘en-candle-ment’ - we testify to the light that is not of ourselves but in us.

The light that is a light to all nations. And we know it as Jesus. The one who, equal with God as the incarnate Word, nevertheless became a human being as one of us, and brought that light, that revelation, that joy of being, down to earth.

And even he did not point to himself but pointed to the cosmic wonder of the grace of God and the immanence of his Spirit and of his Kingdom…

What Jesus reveals on the mountain is not just his own transcendence but ours. We are called to that divinization, that transformation into godliness, into the fullness of our own created natures, which is the goal of God’s plan. Of course not for ourselves but as transformation agents of the cosmos, so that this world may become what it is yearning to be, made to be.

(There is an American pattern of hermitage - Thoreau at Walden Pond, Merton at Gethsemane, Bruno at New Camaldoli - of a cabin in the woods a mile or so from one’s friends or family, where one could retreat in silence and yet stay in touch, through a family dinner, Eucharist, an evening’s common prayer.)

So Moses on Sinai, Jesus on Tabor. But do we need to be on a mountain top to experience change and transformation? Illumination? Transfiguration? What about when we come down? “Morning after”/”Monday Christians”? A common worry - will we keep the momentum going?

Is the buzz all that important? What Moses did - and the people did, or tried to do - thereafter was when the Revelation took root in the soil. When Jesus spoke to Peter and the Sons of Thunder he said, don’t tell anybody about this (like the hidden Messiah of Mark) - not until after… and then you’ll begin to understand....

Once the Spirit had descended and Ordinary Time arrived, then it was the Revelation of the Word, the glory of the Gospel, came into its fullness. The completion of the task was pushed off into the future because we must carry on his work - proclaim, heal, embody, transform - and be transformed in the task.

The Revelation becomes complete in the Practice.


A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. (Revelation 12:1)

Kathryn Hogan. “The Secret of All Joy”: Finding Mary in the Month of May. Catholic News Live. accessed August 4, 2017.

Robert Pogue Harrison. The True American. The New York Review of Books. August 17, 2017. Vol. 64, No. 13. accessed August 4, 2017.

Transfiguration 2017

Sunday, July 30, 2017


seed, yeast, treasure, and pearl

A man sows seed in a field. It starts small, but grows.

A woman hides yeast in a big batch of flour, but it shows itself: it causes the whole batch to rise.

A man discovers that a field holds a treasure and quickly quietly giddily goes to buy that field and claim the treasure.

Equally foolishly a businessman liquidates his assets to devote all his resources to the acquisition of a single pearl.

Two children lean over a basin and get their hair wet.

Yet somehow all these people with their outrageous gestures of abandonment to joy find themselves fulfilled far beyond the dreams of avarice.

The little bitty seed outgrows all expectations and furnishes the nesting place for birds of all the air.

The little leaven is enough to season ⅔ of a bushel - plenty of bread for everybody. (Is this one of Jesus’ lakeside feasts?)

These two clever fellows with their secret deals - a treasure in a field, a pearl of great price - outmaneuver themselves, right out of the market, for now they have nothing - nothing but the one thing that matters above all else.

Leaving the rest behind, they find that one perfect pearl, that seed of a great tree, that hidden hoard of unreasoned happiness, that overwhelming blessing of bread, that redeems all of life.

The one thing that matters.

For hidden in all these parables is the one true thing that makes all else make sense: the same thing that two little kids are dedicated to today: following Jesus.

That is what the kingdom of heaven means: a way of living that makes sense of life.

And behind it is an unbreakable promise by the maker of all things:

I will never leave you. I will never stop loving you.

In the midst of your worst trials and tribulations, your greatest loves and greatest fears, I will stay by your side.

That is God’s promise to all of us: that now that we have called upon him,
Nothing can separate us from the love of the Eternal One. Nothing is that strong.

And so the stamp is indelible. The watermark is unerasable. The oil stain cannot be washed out.

You are marked as Christ’s own for ever.

July 30, 2017.
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.
Proper 12, Year A.

Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46

The Parable of the Mustard Seed. (31-32)
The Parable of the Yeast. (33)
The Parable of the treasure hidden in a field. (44)
The Pearl of Great Price (45-46).

Sunday, July 23, 2017

weeds, wheat, and time

Mary of Magdala

There is a mine south and east of here once called the Irish Mag., from the false association of this woman of Galilee with a woman caught in adultery or a woman anointing Jesus' feet with precious oil. She was as desperate as the woman about to be stoned, she was as grateful as the woman preparing Jesus for his Burial.

What we do know about her is her dilemma and distress, her deliverance and dignity restored, her response of love and faithful follower-ship, and her witness to the one who delivered her from demons and who was himself to lead us all from death to life.

She was a witness: one of the last to see him living and the first to see him raised. She was a witness; the messenger to the apostles of the risen Lord, the first to proclaim the good news.

What we know of her helps us sort out the meaning of this strange parable of the wheat and the weeds. The farmer takes a puzzling course. He could have had the workers pull or hoe or poison the weeds once they'd sprouted and been spotted. But instead his patience and wisdom led to something that makes more sense if we realize Jesus was talking about a harvest of souls - and that the time was ripe.

Remember, he said that "the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few." (Matthew 9:37, Luke 10:2) The harvest time is now - for Mary of Magdala. A woman worn down by afflictions, she becomes one of the greatest of disciples.

Magdala is a small ancient town site along the lakeshore of Gennesaret better known in the Bible stories as the Sea of Galilee. On the west side of the lake south of the incoming stream of the Jordan are a series of places well known to pilgrim: Capernaum (where Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law) then Tabgha (the multiplication of the fishes), Ginosaur, and Magdala. Inland from the ancient site is a modern Arab/Israeli village, Migdal. Recent excavations show the importance anew of these small ancient villages.

Along the lakeshore where Jesus first began his ministry, proclaiming and healing, he encountered this woman. (Luke 8:2, Mark 16:9) And something extraordinary happened. He encountered her in the midst of her affliction with unconditional love. He never confused her quandary with the person that God loved. And as a result of this personal encounter with Jesus her dignity was restored. She became an icon of hope for all who are broken in heart or spirit or body or mind.

And this freedom, and her devoted discipleship, prepared her for something even more extraordinary. For she was a witness - one of the last to see Jesus living, and then - the first to see him risen. A personal encounter with Jesus that transformed the world. For she, the first witness of the resurrection, was sent by Jesus to proclaim the good news to his apostles, the ones commissioned to take this message to all peoples.

St. Paul's, Tombstone.

July 23, 2017. Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.
Proper 11. Year A. Track 2.
Isaiah 44:6-8.
Psalm 86:11-17.
Romans 8:12-25.
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.
The Parable of the Weeds of the Field (the Wheat and the Tares).

Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene (July 22)
Judith 9:1,11-14
2 Corinthians 5:14-18
John 20:11-18
Psalm 42:1-7

"Mary Magdalene: Icon of Hope" by Jennifer Ristine, RC. accessed July 22, 2017.

Friday, July 14, 2017

waiting for rain

Ted Ramirez from Tubac has a song about the time of year just past - about waiting for rain. It is a cheerful song, sung in June, waiting for the monsoon. The rains will come - haven’t they always? And all this dry ground will moisten. Rivers will run, green will show among the brown. Mosquitoes will hover; termites take wing. The birds are happy. And there is the smell of creosote after the rain. Hope.

Hope. Scattered seeds. Scientifically and practically, as Joann Lee from San Francisco observes, we place our seeds cautiously in the garden, in neat rows, tilled carefully. Soil prepared, supplements added, nurture required.

It seems almost farcical to suggest a sower throwing arms wide, seed scattering here and there… indiscriminately? We don’t do it it this way -- usually.

Though as we speak a counter-example sits on my mantelpiece: mesquite pods of a rare variety. I’ve been encouraged by the giver to toss them into a wash just as the monsoon starts… And here where some oaks used to grow, cattle have unconsciously spread mesquite pods of a common variety wherever they sense moisture and shade enough to pause in…

Some gardener, huh? Rocks, weeds, thorns - and good soil.

Wherever that might be. Cracks in the pavement. There are towns where I lived once, San Francisco for example, where there seemed to be no green thing for miles, except in parks - just concrete. Before the urban tree movement. And Brooklyn -- you wouldn’t know it, looking at brownstone buildings lined up in closed ranks, but behind and between the stone facades are gardens, green things, and occasionally now a community garden in a vacant lot.

But that is not enough, not what it’s all about. Sure, there are farms, big and small, organic gardeners and agrichemical giants.

The seed that grows between, behind, among, and inside the buildings -- the Word of God -- falls more indiscriminately, apparently. A seed lies dormant in a human soul for years and miles. One day something brings it moisture and nurture, and it grows. May be concerns, bitterness, indifference can stop the process - or can it?

Is grace inexorable? Does it miss us sometimes?

This story seems not to be about gardening. It’s a simpler, stranger story, a challenge to be worked out. Parable itself seems to mean, literally, to throw alongside, to scatter about. Jesus the punster. And sower - for he himself throws out to us this story.

To scatter, broadcast: that’s what we do. For all our niche marketing and careful planning, it’s the seeds of hope that we drop unconsciously or unconcernedly, without an agenda, that may lodge, grow, and lead to fruitful life.

There is a story about an old Scottish minister looking back at the end of his life, over the course of his career, and a question came. Did you ever convert anybody? Did you ever bring the gospel into anyone’s heart? No, I don’t think so -- unless it was that little Davey Livingstone…

David Livingstone, who went on to a life of missionary service in Africa.

Now such things are less fashionable. But the people -- the descendants of the people who heard the Word from such as David Livingstone -- are grateful.

For the missions, indiscriminate as they may have been, left behind some seeds to grow.

Material benefits -- clean water, epidemic diseases eradicated, healthier food, educated children -- but notably all this came from a greater good, that ordered them and made sense of them all: to reconcile our souls to God in Christ.

This is still the mission of Christian service, underlying all our efforts and activities, and to be reaffirmed … as it was this last week by my wife’s relief and development organization, refocusing their efforts in light of the greater mission, for all is done in the name of Christ.

And so those seemingly random efforts have behind them a hope and a promise, that under God’s grace and with his assurance, his word will not return to him empty.

And the rains will come and water the earth.

May it be with us as you have purposed. Amen.

Psalm 65: 9-14
Romans 8:1-11

The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Oxford. 231.

Joann H. Lee, “Living the Word”, The Christian Century, June 21, 2017, 19.

Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Nourishing News, July 2017.