The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Osprey and Prey

Our newest neighbor returns daily to a perch high in the same tree immediately next door to our home. It's an osprey and a beautiful one. Yesterday afternoon I caught him just as he was taking flight with a fish in his talons. And today I spotted him again and managed to take a few photos before he left. I expect he'll return soon, since he seems to use this particular tree as his resting spot before and after fishing.

Osprey taking flight with fish
Osprey perched high above in a large live-oak tree
What magnificent birds!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Dogs and Other of God's Creatures

Living here in The Villages I've become more attuned to that which surrounds me. I suppose it has something to do with retirement and the simple fact that I have more time to notice that which had escaped my notice in the past. In recent years I've also developed the habit of walking a few miles in the early morning. At first these walks were speed-walks of the kind recommended by young, fit, marathon-running doctors -- you know, the irritating sort of physician who expects his patients to be clones of himself. Anyhow, for a while I was doing very well, grinding along at a four-mile-per-hour pace and delighting in the pre-dawn solitude while listening to audio books on my iPhone. I especially enjoyed my audio pilgrimage through the novels of Anthony Trollope. They're really quite wonderful.

Maddie, Ready to Walk
Then, a couple of years ago, we got Maddie, our rescued Bichon Frise, and my routine underwent a major change. This little critter likes (needs) to be walked twice daily, early morning and late afternoon. But except for the occasional short sprint, Maddie is no speed-walker. As a dog she explores the world around her largely through her sense of smell. This demands frequent abrupt stops to inhale those free molecules rising from shrubs, tree trunks, light poles, individual blades of grass, and yes, from fire hydrants. My power walks have become mere strolls interrupted by this little dog's fascination with odors.

People who know -- including Dear Diane -- have told me that I am allowing the dog to rule the master, and that I, the human, should take charge during these walks. I must, they insist, make Maddie walk at my pace, thereby forcing her to ignore all those olfactory stimulants that so attract her. I had decided to do just that when I read an article written by a veterinarian who encourages dog owners to do exactly what I had been doing. Dogs, the writer said, are frustrated hunters that need to sniff and explore their world through their noses. It's their way of connecting with their wild roots. All those smells represent what Jack London labeled a "Call of the Wild" and to prohibit a dog from following this instinctive behavior is nothing less than cruel. Well, as you might imagine, after reading this sound advice I decided to stick with the Maddie-friendly strolls and try to enjoy them. Maddie is happy, I've accommodated, and my doctor will just have to accept this less strenuous regimen. I also miss my audio books, but with Maddie leading the way I need to be more alert to the sound of approaching pickups, cars and golf carts. This rules out ear-buds.

This slower, dog-dictated pace offers another benefit. I have begun to notice things. For example, because I no longer listen to audio books on my walks, I've learned to recognize the calls of many different birds. I've even become acquainted with a few individual birds who inhabit particular trees and greet Maddie and me every morning as we pass by. 

Osprey Perched High-Fish in Talons
On many summer afternoons we see the osprey who perches high in a large live-oak tree in a neighbor's backyard, his talons often clutching a newly caught fish. He lets the world know of his fishing skill by broadcasting a continual series of high-pitched squeaks. He then flies off still clutching the fish. Perhaps he takes it to the nest and feeds the family.

Maddie and I first heard and then spotted our osprey again as we were returning home from this evening's walk. He was perched high in the same tree, but then I noticed a second bird, perhaps a mate. I went inside, grabbed a camera, and was able to catch one of these beautiful birds as it flew off and passed directly overhead.
Our Osprey Directly Overhead

One great blue heron spends his mornings perched, precariously for so large a bird, on the same branch of the same small tree located at the edge of a local pond. He always gives us a glance, finds us uninteresting, and returns to his preening.

Somewhat surprisingly Maddie has no interest in birds, regardless of their size. Ducks, cranes, ibises, herons -- she ignores them all. She's actually walked right alongside a pair of sandhill cranes, with each of the three seemingly oblivious to the others. It's all very odd. Unlike many local dogs, she also ignores the common lizards and rare snakes that cross our path. 
Sandhill Crane in our Front Yard -- a Portrait
It's mammals that interest Maddie, although she seems to discriminate between the domestic and the wild. Remarkably she has never barked or growled at another dog. She greets them all, regardless of their size, with a friendly wagging of her tail. If a dog doesn't respond in kind, she simply backs off. And a few months ago she encountered what I believe was her first cat. She seemed mildly interested, but then decided it wasn't worth her time and returned to her sniffing duties. 

But if Maddie spots a wild mammal -- squirrel, rabbit, muskrat, armadillo, whatever... -- she immediately gives chase. This, of course, stops abruptly once the leash reaches its full extension. She might be a strong little dog, but she weighs only 15 pounds and I weigh...well, considerably more. Just as well, since I doubt she's ever considered what she would do if she actually caught up with one of these wild critters.

One of the more intimidating mammals we have come across is the fox squirrel. A family of these lived in one of our live oak trees in the back yard. I confronted one for a photo op and as you can see, he was not particularly pleased.
Mean-looking Fox Squirrel

Subtropical Florida, of course, also has its share -- actually more than its share -- of insects. Most are easily ignored but every so often one encounters a bug worthy of attention. This occurred a few days ago as Dear Diane and I visited a parishioner. Leaving her house, I couldn't help but notice the largest bug I've ever seen (photo below) clinging to the side of our friend's car. Some sort of cricket or grasshopper, he was at least five inches long (no exaggeration). With the sole exception of butterflies, I really don't care for bugs. Knowing this, my loving spouse gently picked him up and tossed him onto the lawn. This is just one more reason for celebrating our marriage almost 48 years ago.
Jiminy Crickets!!
And so these twice daily walks of ours have given me a new and enhanced appreciation of God's Creation. Ospreys and herons, mockingbirds and cardinals, crickets and black snakes, muskrats and fox squirrels...oh, yes, and black-bellied whistling ducks -- they don't quack, they whistle -- all these wondrous creatures have given me another reason to be joyful, another reason to realize how good being is.
Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Two Cities

St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
Over 1,600 years ago St. Augustine wrote his masterpiece, The City of God, in which he strove to convince his readers, then and now, that the entirety of human society, from its very beginnings until its yet to be encountered finality, has as its end the formation of a Holy Society. This society, toward which we are struggling, is the very reason everything, meaning the entire universe, was created. Certainly very few prior to Augustine, with the obvious exception of Jesus Christ Himself and the Mosaic author of Genesis, had ever considered human society in such expansive, universal terms. In other words, according to Augustine, this City of God not only includes the entire world, but explains its very existence. All of creation, therefore, has meaning only as it relates to this Holy Society, the City of God.

In his work, Augustine compares this City with the human city, which in Augustine's time was the city of Rome, and by extension the entire Roman Empire. Of course, at the time the Empire was under siege. Alaric and his Visigoths had recently shocked the Empire by a decade-long ravaging of Italy culminating in the sack of Rome itself (410 A.D.). The pagans, and there were still many Roman pagans, ignored Rome's decline and moral decay that had begun long before the Christian ascendancy and blamed Christians for the failure of Roman power to protect the capital. Augustine would have none of it. Through many pages of wonderful argument Augustine shows that the Roman city was really no true city because it lacked true justice. The only true city is the city that manifests true justice, and this can only be a city with Christ as its head. This is the City of God.
Alaric and the Visigoths Sack Rome (410 A.D.)

Today we inhabit both of these cities. We live and work and struggle in a city of man with its distorted sense of justice, peace, and well-being. For many of this city's inhabitants justice has come to mean only order, peace only the absence of conflict, and well-being only material prosperity. Such attitudes can easily lead a worried populace to accept a level of authoritarianism that promises stability and safety. But with that authoritarianism comes its partner, injustice. Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China and too many others all morphed from authoritarianism to totalitarianism and brought injustice on a massive scale to their enslaved people. Lest we become complacent, it's important to understand that no nation, even a constitutional republic such as ours, is immune. Just glance back through our own recent history to a time when American citizens were confined in camps and stripped of their liberty and property because of their national origin or ancestry; or when an entire class of citizens were deprived of their constitutional rights because of the color of their skin. Yes, even the United States has sometimes succumbed, although it has struggled mightily to correct some of these injustices. But injustice continues simply because it will always be present in the city of man. Indeed, today our nation allows the slaughter of its most innocent, the unborn, an injustice that has cost the lives of over 50 million future citizens.

The city of man offers us a series of imperfect choices of the kind we now encounter in the upcoming election. And because we must inhabit this city, we must choose. We must choose one candidate or another or none at all. But whatever our choice, as Christians we should be aware that no election will ever lead to a society of perfect justice, despite the predictions of the candidates and hopes of the people who support them.

I'm not advocating an abdication of our civic responsibility or a pulling away from human society. We must still live and work; we must pay our taxes; we must respect legitimate civil authority; but in all these we must avoid doing evil. St. Paul reminds us of all this in Romans 13, calling us as Christians to be good citizens in the city of man

This doesn't mean that we don't confront our society when it falls short of God's will for it. After all, as individuals and as a society, we must always obey God's commandments: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments" [Jn 14:15]. And we must encourage our fellow citizens to do the same, to turn to God in love and to obey His commandments, which were given to us for our good and the good of society as a whole. But we cannot expect political solutions to cure all our societal ills. For example, I have long believed that the end of the scourge of abortion will never come about through political means. Such a change -- a change in a society's deep-seated morality, in its sense of justice -- demands a real change in the hearts of its citizens, and that can happen only when those citizens turn to God in repentance and love. We repent because we are a society of sinners and we love because God commands it. How did St. Paul put it?
"Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law" [Rom 13:10]
And with what words did Jesus begin his public ministry? "Repent and believe in the Gospel" [Mk 1:15]. If we, as a society, obey this timeless command of our Lord we will see the coming of the City of God. This is why the Church constantly preaches that its primary task is one of evangelization, and why all Christians are called to join in this effort. We are called to do God's work in the world, to bring about the Holy Society Augustine foresaw so long ago. No politician will do this for us.

Pray for our nation.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Absent Republicans

As you may have noticed, if you read this blog, I am by no means a fan of Donald Trump. But I cannot imagine a worse scenario for our nation than the election of Hilary Clinton. For no other reason than the makeup of the Supreme Court, it is critical that she be kept out of the Oval Office. I am, therefore, appalled that so many notable Republicans have not only refused to attend their party's national convention, but that some have actually declared they will not vote for the party's candidate. Whom do they think their lack of support will benefit?

A few moments ago, former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, during an interview with Fox News anchor Stuart Varney, in effect said that Trump must pay more attention to these reluctant Republicans (including, by the way, Sununu himself) who are important figures in the party and the government. Governor Sununu thought Trump should have scratched the speeches by family members and replaced them with speeches by a few of these reluctant non-supporters. He went on to suggest there was far too much family focus at the convention. Actually, the speeches by Trump's wife and son made me a bit more inclined to like the man himself. But the irony, apparently lost on Sununu, was his claim that he couldn't attend the convention because he was campaigning for his son, who is running for governor of New Hampshire. Remarkable isn't it?

Anyhow, my first reaction, and that of Dear Diane, to Sununu's comments was, "Who does this man think he is?" We the people are the important ones here, not those who are elected by the people to do the people's business. The people are sovereign in these United States of America. Politicians are servants of the people, or at least they should be, and the only thing that should motivate them is the good of the people, the good of the nation. If their little noses are out of joint because they lost an election or were treated in a less than friendly way by another politician...well, too bad. As we used to say in Naval aviation: suck it up and fly the mission. That's what you're paid to do. I suggest our reluctant Republicans do the same.

Enough! This is why I despise politics today.

A timely postscript for those Christians who are considering a vote for Hilary Clinton. The readings for today's Mass include the opening verses of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah:
The word of the LORD came to me: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you" [Jer 1:4-5].
This reading was followed by a selection from Psalm 71 which included:
You are my hope, Lord; my trust, GOD, from my youth. On you I have depended since birth; from my mother’s womb you are my strength; my hope in you never wavers" [Ps 71:5-6].
Yes, before we were formed in the womb, we were known and loved by God. And in our nation we have slaughtered well over 50,000,0000 infants in the womb, all known and loved by God. This is why, above all else, this election is so critical.

Pray for our nation.

Donald Trump and Norman Vincent Peale

Some years ago, I had an interesting discussion with a parishioner who believed that God wanted all of the faithful to be successful in their chosen professions and to live prosperous lives filled with material blessings. Out of this belief I also sensed an admonishment toward those who lacked these blessings. He seemed to be saying that those he considered unsuccessful lived mediocre or poverty-stricken lives because they were unwilling to do what was necessary to lift themselves up and achieve the prosperity God wanted for them. Such people, he believed, were doomed to live unproductive, unrewarding lives because they did not focus on the positive, because they had no drive to excel. 

It was then that I asked him if he were a big fan of the late Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993). He brightened at the mention of Peale's name, and that's when I realized changing this man's mind would be a serious challenge. 

Peale is perhaps best know for his popular book, The Power of Positive Thinking, which has sold several million copies since it was first published in 1952. A minister in the Reformed Church of America, Peale was the long-time pastor of New York City's Marble Collegiate Church, but he was also a kind of self-help guru who combined his unique brand of Christianity with his psychological theories about mental health and living the good life. 
Norman Vincent Peale
The book received criticism from both directions. Many mental health professionals believed Peale's approach offered adherents nothing more than a dangerous panacea that would only aggravate their problems and not cure them. And most Christian theologians considered Peale's approach to be nothing less than heretical, a cult that misread and misapplied the teachings of Jesus Christ. I'm neither psychologist nor psychiatrist, so I won't presume to address Peale's teachings from that direction. But I will take a moment to discuss his religious views.

In essence Peale dismissed the humility of Jesus Christ and the merciful love of God, preferring to view God as a Being who desires only to help you achieve success and avoid life's problems. He, therefore, placed man at the center of reality, turning God into a kind of impersonal force that we can use to our material advantage. As you might expect from someone who thinks this way, suffering is never a good thing and is simply an indication that one is not living life as he ought. Repentance and the need for forgiveness are also pushed aside lest they interfere with the need always to think positively. Peale's "faith" then becomes a form of Christianity without the Cross. Indeed, It replaces the Cross with man himself. In a sense, Peale was a forerunner of many of today's televangelists who preach a distorted gospel of success and wealth, while ignoring the Gospel of Jesus Christ that calls us to carry our cross alongside the Cross of Christ.

Something I didn't know about Peale was the extent of his influence on Donald Trump. I discovered this yesterday when I opened the latest issue of First Things, and turned first, as I always do, to the essay on the last page. The title of this month's essay is "Donald Trump, Man of Faith", written by Matthew Schmitz, First Things' literary editor. In it Schmitz explains many things about the Republican candidate for president, including some of the comments he has made on his religious faith. The essay is certainly worth a read for those who want to understand better Donald Trump's worldview. 

Trump, addressing his enthusiasm for Peale and his preaching, recently said,
"Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking was my pastor...To this day one of the great speakers I've seen. You hated to leave church. You hated when the sermon was over. That's how great he was at Marble Collegiate Church."
If you want to get a taste of Donald Trump's approach to work and life, check out the below, brief (3-minute) video in which he is interviewed by televangelist Paula White. In it you will see how belief in oneself seems to take precedence over a belief in God:

As you might expect, I don't agree with Donald Trump's Peale-inspired theology, which to me is little more than the glorification of materialism; but it's important to realize that variations on this theology have been shared, or at least praised, by many recent Presidents, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. 

Oh, yes, I never did change that parishioner's mind. He walked away convinced that God wanted him to be rich.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Reluctant Politics

My, my...the Republican Convention is underway in Cleveland, and I find myself inundated with things political. It's everywhere, and about the only way to escape is to flip the remote to Animal Planet or to one of the old movie channels. But, of course, most of us don't. We feel compelled to follow it on the cable news network of choice. There's an attraction to it all, not unlike that which draws us to watch a grisly horror movie or a news story describing some horrific crime. Yes, indeed, like these, modern political theater appeals to our basest instincts...and so, we watch.

As you already might have guessed, I have come to despise politics, largely because I find it a very dirty business in which honor and the good of the nation rarely, if ever, outweigh personal gain. And secondarily because I cannot think of a single living politician whom I respect...not one. I certainly realize that the upcoming presidential election might well be the most important of my lifetime, so I suppose I should be more enthusiastic, more focused on the politics of it all. Have I become jaded as a result of all this? Perhaps. But I'm insufficiently introspective, so I really don't know. Neither do I care.

I only occasionally discuss politics on this blog, and usually because a political issue touches on things theological or moral. But the current political storm is so heated and gusty that I just can't ignore it. So let me just throw out a few brief, and very personal, observations that have ripened in my aging brain these past few months as I have watched American presidential politics march by.

About Donald Trump...I find him semi-articulate, far too shallow in his thinking, and of questionable temperament; and yet he was able to convince enough primary voters to handily defeat a collection of seemingly more qualified candidates. Who could have predicted this? Well, one person did: Donald Trump.

And so, like him or not, we must take him seriously, and we must also admit he has struck a nerve with a large number of Americans. Looking back on the past year, I can understand why. Many, perhaps most, Americans believe strongly that the folks who have held the reins of power in Washington simply don't care about the nation and its people. They have a valid point. And as many Republicans discovered during the primaries, the voters weren't angry at just the Democrats. If you inhabit the Boston-NY-DC corridor, you probably don't understand this. But if live out in the national hinterlands you know exactly what it means. As a result, come January a lot of folks might be looking for a job. The world is focused on the upcoming presidential election, but the results of the congressional elections might actually be more surprising.

About Hillary Clinton...According to her newest best friend, Director of the FBI Comey, it would seem she is not only a likely criminal but also a serial liar. Of course, anyone who has followed Hillary Clinton's long and checkered career already knew that.

Nobody -- not even her strongest supporter, not even her husband -- seems to like her. I suppose we can safely say that even Hillary Clinton doesn't like Hillary. As for me, I could never support her simply because she, like the current president, sees nothing wrong with killing babies by the millions. Anyone who holds such belief is seriously flawed and should not hold any public office.

About the big loser...Well, the biggest loser is Bernie Sanders. This not-so-nice Brooklyn Marxist from Vermont convinced enough uneducated college kids, their equally uneducated parents, and their Woodstockian grandparents to vote for him that he actually gave Hillary, Inc. a bit of a scare. The Democrats tossed a few socialist bones onto the platform so he could gnaw on them during his convention speech, but ultimately Bernie will be no more than a footnote.

The other losers...all those Republicans who never had a chance to claim the nomination  but whose grossly inflated egos drove them into the race. With few exceptions, they all complain about Trump's victory while ignoring the fact that their numbers -- Heavens! There were almost 20 of them! -- made his victory possible. Such a collection of foolish, egotistical men (and one woman) has rarely been seen in politics before.

I'll admit here that I'm no fan of Donald Trump, but I find the actions of some of his Republican opponents to be despicable. Remember how they attacked Trump when he balked at signing the pledge to support the party's ultimate nominee? He finally signed it. They all did. But now many have decided to ignore that pledge.Their word then means nothing. I find that dishonorable, which for me is about the worst thing you can say about another human being.

They all act like little children who didn't get their way. Ohio Governor John Kasich refuses to attend his party's convention, a convention being held in his state. In a sense, by his snub he insults himself. How bizarre. And sadly, Jeb Bush, of whom I once thought rather highly, has joined with Lindsey Graham, and stated that they will neither support nor vote for Trump, the Republican nominee.

The problem is evident. When people have been long embedded in the political establishment, they cannot accept intruders who don't play by their agreed-on rules. If you're not a member of the club, if you don't accept those rules, you'll be pushed to the sidelines. Party affiliation means little. It's why they are able to compromise so easily on moral issues instead of leading the people to understand and accept that which is morally right.

If Hillary wins in November, I think we can safely say that the electorate simply disliked her less than they disliked Donald Trump. But that scenario is hard to imagine, and so my prediction -- always a scary thing -- is that Trump will win.

Homily: Monday, 16th Week of Ordinary Time (Year II)

Readings: Mic 6:1-4, 6-8 • Ps 50 • Mt 12:38-42

“…an evil and unfaithful generation” [Mt 12:39]. Jesus came on pretty strong here, didn’t he? Actually, only moments earlier he’d called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” [Mt 12:34], so I suppose this wasn’t so bad.

Poor Pharisees. They seemed to be in conflict, didn’t they? They saw all the wondrous things Jesus did, and were attracted to Him. But, at the same time, they just couldn’t accept that this humble teacher was anything special. It really bothered them that in essence He’d declared Himself greater than the Temple and the Sabbath, greater than Abraham and Moses, and now, greater than Jonah and Solomon.

And so they asked for a sign. To which Jesus seemed to reply: 

Stop looking at your scrolls and laws; just look at Me, the One standing before you. Everything God has already told you points only to Me. 

And it’s this self-revelation by Jesus that bothered them no end. Indeed, just a few verses later, Jesus said to them:
“But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” [Mt 13:16-17].
And yet, they still asked for a sign. They heard His words and witnessed His deeds, but it was all encased in His humility. And this they couldn’t understand. How can the Messiah, the Lord of History, God’s anointed One, be a servant?

Imagine Jesus’ frustration. These Pharisees, these teachers of the Law, still didn’t realize that Jesus Himself was the sign for which they searched. They demanded to see what was standing right before them.

Jesus must have been thinking back to those words of Micah from our first reading:

“You have been told…what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God” [Mic 6:8].
Here they were, able to walk with their God, the God they wouldn’t recognize because they rejected the humility. They simply wouldn’t listen. Yes, indeed, an “evil and unfaithful” generation. They ignored Jesus Himself, preferring to hear words and words and more words, instead of embracing the Word of God standing in their midst.

"the LORD commanded the fish to vomit Jonah upon dry land"
You reject Me, and yet you demand a sign from me?

Oh, yes, you will certainly receive a sign, the Sign of Jonah – Jonah whose preaching about an unseen God led the king of Nineveh to cover himself in sackcloth and sit in ashes. But before his prophetic preaching, before his mission to Nineveh, Jonah spent three days buried away from the world in repentance for his sins. How did Jesus put it?

“Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights” [Mt 12:40].

He was made sin...
Jesus was buried not for His sins, but for our sins. As St. Paul reminded the Corinthians:

“For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” [2 Cor 5:21].

Jonah saved the Ninevites by admitting his own sin and repenting. He allowed himself to be thrown into the sea, but not into death, for God saved him.

Jesus, who is sinless, saves the world by taking on the sins of the entire human race. He becomes sin, every sin from the very beginning of time, and weighed down by it all, He throws Himself into death, into real death.

You see, brothers and sisters, it’s all for the Pharisees, it’s all for the sinners, it’s all for us.

Tell this to everyone you know. Shout it in the streets, in the marketplace, tell your children and grandchildren, tell each other. 

God won’t abandon us because of our sinfulness; He won’t abandon us because we turn our backs on Him who loves us.

This is the “Sign of Jonah.” It’s the Sign of the Cross.

It’s this sign that lets Him break through our resistance to His Love.

After He was raised up on the Cross, Jesus Christ lowered Himself – that was His mission. In total humility He descends, lowering Himself into the lowest, darkest places of creation, just as Jonah was lowered into darkness.

But Jesus goes further; He goes into the darkest depths of the human heart, and it’s there He brings the Light of Christ.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Homily: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)

Readings Gn 18:1-10a; Ps 15; Col 1:24-28; Lk 10:38-42


Shortly after we moved to Florida, my wife, Diane decided to help out at the Wildwood Soup Kitchen. And like a good deacon, who always listens to the deacon’s wife, I too was volunteered. Now, a dozen years later, Diane’s the Thursday cook and I’m the Thursday captain or head flunky.

It’s a wonderful ministry, a true ecumenical ministry in which well over 200 volunteers from more than 30 local churches participate. Last year we served nearly 90,000 meals and will no doubt exceed that number this year.
Now, one thing I’ve learned from this experience is that people volunteer for all sorts of reasons.

Some love to cook, and just can’t pass up the opportunity to spend a good part of the day cooking 300 meals.

Some don’t know what to do with the free time that retirement brings, and volunteer just to stay busy.

For others it’s a kind of social event, a chance to form friendships with other volunteers.

Some volunteer out of a sense of guilt. Their affluence is a burden to them, and they hope to ease that burden by helping those in need.

Some simply want to serve others, and the soup kitchen is a wonderful way to satisfy that need.

And some, and I wouldn’t try to guess how many, volunteer out of love. They see Jesus Christ in every person they serve and are overwhelmed by a love for God and neighbor. They might hate being in a kitchen, but they come, and they do the work solely out of love, following the Gospel mandate to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. Indeed, that’s our guiding principle at the soup kitchen: “We don’t serve meals; we serve Jesus Christ.”

When it comes right down to it, it’s really a ministry of hospitality; and yet those who exercise this ministry are driven by so many different motives. It’s not unlike what we just heard in today’s Gospel reading from Luke.

One day, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, the fullness of life and truth, walked into the living room of a pair of sisters named Martha and Mary. Both women immediately recognized the privilege of having Jesus in their home and set to work fulfilling the sacred duty of hospitality. The problem was, they had conflicting ideas of what that duty entailed.

Martha’s response is very recognizable, typical of how most of us would probably react.

Open the best wine, the expensive stuff, and brew some good coffee. Get out the good china and silver. Use whatever food you have in the pantry to whip up your best assortment of hot and cold dishes. And hope He won’t want a dessert.

My mother’s name was Martha, and once, when I was a teenager, I asked her if she’d be like the Martha in the Gospel if Jesus came to our house. Without a second’s hesitation, she said, “Oh, no, I’d call a caterer.”

Anyway, while Martha was busying herself in the kitchen, Mary took a different approach to hospitality. For her, the greatest compliment she could pay, greater even than the best of foods, was to give Jesus her full attention. 

Now, we don’t hear from Mary in this passage, but it’s apparent she somehow knew that Jesus, the fullness of truth, had come to her home to nourish and transform her. She saw Jesus as a gift, and not to receive and unwrap this wonderful gift was an insult to the giver. And so Mary listened; she listened to the Word as He spoke the Word. Mary became to Jesus what no rabbi at the time would allow any woman to become…Mary became His disciple.

This was pretty radical stuff back then. Women were expected to prepare the meals and serve them, and certainly wouldn’t be praised for taking part in the discussions. Luke stresses that Jesus takes women seriously, that His words are for all people, men and women, and that salvation comes to all who listen to His words and act on them.

Luke certainly doesn’t relate this incident to endorse laziness, just as Martha isn’t criticized because she attended to her guest’s physical needs. In our first reading from Genesis, when God, in the form of three travelers, visits Abraham, it’s good that Abraham and Sara spare no expense. No, Martha’s hospitality isn’t the problem. The problem was that she allowed the activity of hospitality to become an end in itself. She subordinated discipleship to hospitality. And that hospitality, by becoming an end, also became a distraction, and turned her into a bit of a fussbudget, so much so that she actually got angry with her sister for not joining her.

You can almost feel the tension and pressure building up until it boils over and Martha vents her frustration…but she vents it on the wrong person. Notice that Martha attacks, not Mary, but Jesus Himself: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me” [Lk 10:40].

How authentically human of Martha – to work out her frustrations on the wrong person.

Now, if I were in Jesus’ place, my reaction would be, “Hey, Martha, why blame me?” But not Jesus. He turns to her, and repeating her name -- “Martha, Martha…” -- calms her down. Yes, Martha was, as Jesus told her, “anxious and worried about many things.”

Jesus doesn't rebuke her for serving Him – not at all. He simply tells her that there is something more important. He underlines the truth that they are blessed who hear the Word of God and keep it.

I’m sure a lot of you here remember the old Baltimore Catechism answer to the question, “Why did God make you?” Remember? “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” It’s still a very good answer. Before we can serve God, we must first know Him and love Him.

If our lives are spent solely in activity – only in the serving – we can’t take the time to know our God through prayer and attentiveness to His Word. It’s through prayer, and listening to His Word, and the grace of the sacraments, that we can come to know God, and develop the kind of personal relationship that Jesus wants with us. It’s only through that relationship that we can continue to deepen our love for God.  And it’s through our love for God that we come to see Him in others, and can accept the call to serve Him by serving them.

Our service, then, must be grounded in love; for it is love, and only love, that calls the Christian to serve others: “… whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me [Mt 25:40].

And so for Christians, the two great commandments – loving God and loving our neighbor – merge into one, a single commandment of love.

Yes, hearing and reflecting on the Word of God in prayer is a condition for true, selfless, loving service of the Body of Christ. Martha didn’t appreciate this…not at first. And so she worried, and was anxious about things, as so many of us are. How human and how easy it is, just as it was for Martha, to become obsessed with busyness, to move those things – those things that are really just accidental parts of our lives -- to the center of our lives; and in doing so to send the true center of our lives to the sidelines.

This just cannot be. The fullness of truth, the fullness of life, the fullness of grace deserves our full attention. Jesus can’t be merely a part of our lives, but must be the focus of our lives, always at the very center. 

In our excessively busy lives today, too often we don’t spend time on the important things. When Jesus knocks on your door and my door, when He enters our lives, just as He enters the soup kitchen dozens of times every day, certainly we should serve Him. But we should serve Him in love and attentiveness; listening to Him; and not allowing our service of receiving Jesus to distract us from Jesus Himself.