The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers

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The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers Year C The Relentless Widow John Shea LITURGICAL PRESS Collegeville, Minnesota Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations in bold are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary, copyright © 1992 by the Consultation on Common Texts (CCT). Used by permission. Where noted, Scripture quotations in bold are taken from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the United States of America, second typical edition © 1998, 1997, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner. Where noted, Scripture quotations in bold are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, Catholic edition, © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, the Scripture quotations within the text body are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Cover design by James Rhoades © 2006 by Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, by print, microfilm, micro- fiche, mechanical recording, photocopying, translation, or by any other means, known or yet unknown, for any purpose except brief quotations in reviews, without the previous written permission of Liturgical Press, Saint John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 7500, Collegeville, Minnesota 56321-7500. Printed in the United States of America. ISBN-13: 978-0-8146-2913-0 (Year A) ISBN-10: 0-8146-2913-X (Year A) ISBN-13: 978-0-8146-2914-7 (Year B) ISBN-10: 0-8146-2914-8 (Year B) ISBN-13: 978-0-8146-2915-4 (Year C) ISBN-10: 0-8146-2915-6 (Year C) ISBN-13: 978-0-8146-2916-1 (Feasts, Funerals, & Weddings) Publication Date: Fall 2007 ISBN-10: 0-8146-2916-4 (Feasts, Funerals, & Weddings) Publication Date: Fall 2007 ISBN-13: 978-08146-2917-8 (set) ISBN-10: 0-8146-2917-2 (set) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Shea, John, 1941– The spiritual wisdom of the Gospels for Christian preachers and teachers / John Shea. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-8146-2913-X (Year A : pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Bible. N.T. Gospels-—Criticism, interpretation, etc. 2. Bible. N.T. Gospels—Homiletical use. 3. Lectionary preaching. I. Title. BS2555.52.S54 2004 251'.6—dc22 2003025635 Contents First Sunday of Advent Engaging Collapse 1 Second Sunday of Advent Going Beyond the Mind 5 Third Sunday of Advent Repenting Forever 10 Fourth Sunday of Advent Evangelizing the Child in the Womb 15 Second Sunday in Ordinary Time / Second Sunday after Epiphany Supplying Wine 20 Third Sunday in Ordinary Time / Third Sunday after Epiphany Deepening Spiritual Knowledge 27 Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Fourth Sunday after Epiphany Pleasing and Displeasing 32 Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Fifth Sunday after Epiphany Going Fishing 37 Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Sixth Sunday after Epiphany Taking Hold of the Life That Is Really Life 43 Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time / Seventh Sunday after Epiphany Pausing for Freedom 47 Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Eighth Sunday after Epiphany Thanking Teachers 52 Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Ninth Sunday after Epiphany Obeying the Higher 57 First Sunday of Lent Rejecting Strategies 63 iv The Relentless Widow Second Sunday of Lent Risking Listening 70 Third Sunday of Lent Bearing Fruit 76 Fourth Sunday of Lent Failing to Rejoice 81 Fifth Sunday of Lent (Lectionary for Mass) Holding in Sin or Forgiving for Life 89 Fifth Sunday of Lent (Revised Common Lectionary) Walking Us Home 98 Second Sunday of Easter Resurrecting with Questions 107 Third Sunday of Easter Leading from Soul 117 Fourth Sunday of Easter Speaking in Your Own Voice 129 Fifth Sunday of Easter Remembering Love 135 Sixth Sunday of Easter Leaving Peace 139 Seventh Sunday of Easter Practicing Spiritual Presence 146 Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 5 Peddling Choices 153 Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 6 Loving Extravagantly 158 Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time Singing Our Suffering 165 Sunday between June 19 and June 25 inclusive / Proper 7 Fearing and Loving God 172 Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 8 Rebuking the Mind 180 Contents v Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 9 Handing on the Mission 186 Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 10 Flowing From and With Love 194 Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 11 Integrating Mary and Martha 201 Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 12 Praying Someone Else’s Prayer 207 Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 13 Balancing Trade-Offs 215 Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 14 Receiving and Giving 220 Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 15 Discovering Fire 227 Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time Striving to Enter 233 Sunday between August 21 and August 27 inclusive / Proper 16 Setting People Free 239 Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 17 Laughing at Ourselves 245 Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 18 Hungering to Build and Battle 252 Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 19 Getting Back What We Lose 257 Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 20 Surviving Spiritually 263 Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 21 Needing Something More 272 Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 22 Accessing What We Have 278 Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 23 Seizing Second Chances 284 vi The Relentless Widow Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 24 Wearing Down Injustice 289 Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 25 Checkmating the King 294 Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 26 Finding the True Self 301 Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 27 Hoping Without Knowing 306 Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time / Proper 28 Predicting the Future 313 Christ the King / Reign of Christ Testing Life by Dying 319 Scripture Index 328 First Sunday of Advent Luke 21:25-28, 34-36 lm • Luke 21:25-36 rcl Engaging Collapse A Spiritual Commentary There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heav- ens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. Creation is falling apart. Genesis is being reversed. The lamps that God hung in the sky to light the earth—the sun, moon, and stars—are now sending out alarm signals. The waters that once covered every- thing and that God siphoned off into containers called seas are making a comeback. God had raised up the earth in the midst of the seas, giv- ing people a place to stand secure. But now the seas are seething and roaring, threatening the order of creation with a return to primordial chaos. This noise frightens people, reminding them of Noah’s time and the flood that buried the earth and its unrepentant inhabitants. But what of the rainbow at the end of Noah’s story? What of the pledge that God would never again drown creation? The rainbow is the Son of Man, the Full Human Being. This one ap- pears as things are falling apart, arriving from a space that transcends collapse. His advent banishes fear and allows his followers to stand up straight. The Son of Man is the new earth, the new place to stand. The waters cannot cover him. He is the redemption that is offered in the midst of a perishing world. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at 1 T all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man. Surviving and engaging collapse depends on knowing where to stand, on finding higher ground. If we give ourselves over to the physical and social world that is collapsing, we will go down with it. We must guard our spirit against triviality, against allowing it to become drunk and bloated with cares so that “neither moth nor rust consumes” (Matt 6:20). These cares weigh us down, do not allow us to move, and make us inattentive to subtle reality. If we do not do this, the collapse will appear to us as a trap, completely capturing us, threatening the total reality of who we are. We will not be aware of our transcendent self. We will have identified with those aspects of ourselves that are vulnerable to breakdown. Therefore, our task is prayer and vigilance. These disciplines heighten awareness of our spiritual nature, that dimension of ourselves that with- stands destruction. Standing secure in this space, we know ourselves as companions of the Son of Man, the Full Human Being. With this new identity, there emerges the courage not only to survive collapse but to engage it. When our worlds fall apart and the prediction is that every- one’s will (“The day I speak of will come upon all who dwell on the face of the earth”), the Son of Man is the name we give to the fearless endeavor of rescue and redemption. It is the name that belongs to all people who, following Jesus, stay vigilant in prayer. Far from shrink- ing from destruction, we lean into it. We hold one another through and beyond the terrible collapses of life. But what exactly is falling apart? What are these terrible collapses? Some take the cosmic symbolism literally. They wait for the end of the space-time world, and buy binoculars to catch the first glimpse of the cloud-riding Son of Man. Their vigil continues. Some take the cosmic symbolism to express political anarchy, the breakdown of the social order that puts everything at risk. Those who have endured this type of collapse know the truth of this symbolism in their hearts. Their world does fall apart, and the only images that do it justice are pictures of universal, cosmic destruction. Some take the cosmic symbolism to refer to individual death, the vulnerability of the mind-body organism. We have all seen this col- lapse in others, and, despite a voracious appetite for self-deception, we cannot convince ourselves we will be spared. 2 The Relentless Widow Some take the cosmic symbolism to point to our personally constructed worlds of meaning, the way we put things together, the plans we have formulated and are eagerly implementing. Then our children move away, our job is downsized, our real estate taxes are raised beyond our means, our spouse turns moody and silent—the world we inhabited and hoped would continue is in shambles. The house has fallen. These collapses can be complete or partial. But is there anyone who has not experienced the tentative nature of their personal constructions of meaning? However we interpret what is collapsing—cosmos, society, mind- body organism, or personal world of meaning—one thing is certain. In human life breakdown is inevitable. Teaching Spiritual traditions often characterize people as border walkers. We live at the intersection of the created and the Uncreated, time and eternity, space and infinity, matter and spirit. Evelyn Underhill, a spiri- tual writer in the Anglican tradition, calls this the two-sided or double reality of human life. We are, then, faced by two concepts, both needful if we are to make any sense of our crude experience; the historical, natural, and contingent; the timeless, supernatural, and absolute. They must be welded together, if we are to provide a frame for all the possibilities of human life; and that life, whether social or individual, must have both its historically flowing and its changelessly absolute side. (Evelyn Underhill, “Our Two-Fold Relation to Reality” in Evelyn Underhill: Modern Guide to the Ancient Quest for the Holy [New York: SUNY Press, 1988] 164–5) Although this is the truth of the human condition, Underhill does not think most people are consistently conscious of this situation. Doubtless for the mass of men such consciousness is still in the rudi- mentary and sporadic stage. Here and there it does appear among us, though in very unequal degrees. And in so far as we are aware of these two aspects in ourselves and in the universe, we have to strike a work- ing balance between them, if we would rightly harmonize the elements of life and achieve a stable relation with reality. (Ibid.) Therefore, people face two tasks. The first is to become conscious of the full, two-sided reality of who they are. The second is to learn to “weld” these together, to find a “working balance” between them, to “harmo- nize” their elements. First Sunday of Advent 3 But the apocalyptic text for the first Sunday of Advent does not talk in generalities about harmony, welding, and balance. The “historically flowing” and “changelessly absolute” sides are being ripped apart. The hope that is held out is to learn to identify with the “changelessly absolute” side. Grounded in this identity, we are able to relate to the historical flowing. Ancient spirituality valued “harmony, welding, and balance,” but it was also clear-headed about the priority of the spiritual. It held pride of place for the simple reason that it survived historical passage. It did not go down into the dust. A classic statement of this emphasis comes from Vedanta philosophy. Two birds of golden plumage sat on the same tree. The one above, serene, majestic, immersed in his own glory; the one below restless and eating the fruits of the tree, now sweet, now bitter. Once he ate an exceptionally bitter fruit, then he paused and looked up at the majestic bird above; but he soon forgot about the other bird and went on eating the fruits of the tree as before. Again he ate a bitter fruit, and this time he hopped up a few boughs nearer to the bird at the top. This happened many times until at last the lower bird came to the place of the upper bird and lost himself. He found all at once that there had never been two birds, but that he was all the time that upper bird, serene, majestic, and immersed in his own glory. (Lucinda Vardey, ed., God in All Worlds: An Anthology of Contempo- rary Spiritual Writing [New York: Pantheon Books, 1995] 475) We do not have to accept the dualism and negative assessment of his- torical life implied in this text to appreciate the spiritual instinct at its core. How the historically flowing and changelessly absolute sides come together in negative times is that we move closer to the change- lessly absolute. In the most threatening moments of our lives, the Son of Man ap- pears as a protecting nearness that does not permit final destruction. It seems to me this truth entails more than the survival of the soul. It means we have the freedom to engage collapse, to relate to it from the transcendent center of our being. For me the image of the Full Human Being coming on the clouds with power and glory is a magnificent imaginative picture of this possibility that God graciously offers. It has all the flavor and excitement of last-minute rescue. However, another picture, more realistic but no less dramatic, haunts me. It is the earthly Son of Man swallowing the world of collapse with his voice. “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last” (Mark 15:37). 4 The Relentless Widow Second Sunday of Advent Luke 3:1-6 Going Beyond the Mind A Spiritual Commentary In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. This clever, opening sentence cuts two ways. On one level, it is the proper way to historically date an event. It names the ruling parties, beginning with Roman overlords, proceeding to Jewish rulers, and finally acknowledging Temple authorities. Hierarchical protocol is correctly followed. We know the time and place of John the Baptist by situating him in the context of the major players of the day. On another level, it is a scathing theological judgment on the Roman and Jewish political leadership and the religious establishment. The Word of God has bypassed them all. The political and religious lead- ers are meant to be mediations of divine power. Earthly thrones mirror the divine throne; earthly authority participates in divine authority. But the Word of God does not stop at palaces or the temple. Instead, it searches out a priest’s son who is also a prophet and finds him in the desert. The desert is a place of purification and inner scrutiny, far from the machinations of power. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is writ- ten in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, 5 T and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” John’s baptism is an outer ritual meant to express and facilitate an inner process. A standard interpretation is: as dirt is washed off by water, so sin is washed away by baptism. Another interpretation sees the submerged person dying to their previous life, returning to the waters of the womb, and emerging from the waters into a new life. Neither of these interpretations names the intricacies of inner process. Instead, they stress change, a transition from one state to another. The intricacies of the inner change process are captured in the phrase a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” “Repentance” is a translation of the Greek word metanoia. Metanoia literally means “going beyond the mind.” When we are able to go beyond the mind, forgiveness of sins follows. This is an enigmatic connection. It assumes there is something about the mind that holds onto sins; and there is something about going beyond the mind that lets go of sins. This going beyond the mind to let go of sins is not an end in itself. For John the Baptist it is the necessary work of preparation. Borrowing the language of Isaiah, he sees himself as a construction worker. He is build- ing a highway for the arrival of the Lord. Whatever is an obstacle will be eliminated. If the road is winding, it will be straightened. If it is rough, it will be smoothed. If a mountain is in the way, it will be flattened. If a valley slows travel time, it will be lifted into a flat surface. The effect of these multiple images is a sense of determination. Whatever is needed to ease the Lord’s arrival will be done. This is a man on a mission. But what is this “going beyond the mind to let go of sins” prepara- tion for? The account of Jesus’ baptism gives a symbolic answer. In the Gos- pel of Luke, when Jesus comes out of the water, he prays. In prayer the sky opens, the Spirit as a dove descends, and the heavenly voice affirms, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). This is the goal of the going beyond the mind and forgiv- ing sins. It readies the baptized person to hear the transcendent word of love. Without forgiveness of sins, people are blind and deaf to the descent of the dove and the voice from the sky. The full process entails going beyond the mind to let go of sins and receive the Holy Spirit. This is what happens to Jesus, and this is what can happen to his fol- lowers. John’s highway is ultimately a path to let God get close, to make it possible to welcome Jesus as the Giver of the Spirit. 6 The Relentless Widow Teaching The mind has a mind of its own. Thoughts think themselves, seem- ingly undirected by the thinker. The discovery of this simple and unde- niable facet of our makeup can be quite startling. We fantasize we are in complete control of mental processes. However, the actual situation seems to be quite different. When we concentrate, we can focus think- ing along a certain path. But if we relax attention, certain automatic mental processes kick in. The automatic process that concerns John the Baptist is how we deal with the wounds that have been inflicted on us and the wounds we have inflicted on others. In religious language, his focus is on how the mind seduces us into identifying with sin. There is an adhesive quality about sinful experiences. They stick. We remember the beatings, the humiliations, the hateful glances, and the mocking words. The wrongs done to us are available to memory in a way neutral and even positive experiences are not. Although the experi- ence of sin begins with being sinned against, we are quick learners in this way of being human. We soon learn to wound others. We engage in hitting, lying, cheating, betraying, etc. We need to protect and promote ourselves at all costs. Any behavior that appears to further this narrow and intense self-preoccupation we embrace. Soon we can tell our life story in term of blows received and blows given. It is a tale of sin; and even if we repress it, it secretly shapes our sense of who we are. This attraction of the mind to the negative has a cumulative effect. As the mind simultaneously nurtures a sense of victimhood and wal- lows in guilt over its own mistakes, sin rises to a new status in the interior life. We gradually begin to identity with the sinful dimension of our lives. In our own eyes, we become, above all else, one who has been sinned against and one who sins in turn. We are the receiver and giver of blows, and the highest compliment is, “He gave as good as he got.” The mind is convinced this is the “real us,” and it defends this identity by citing facts and providing rationalizations. Nothing can disprove this obvious truth. However, there is an important distinction to be made in telling this inner story of sin. The distinction is between what has happened and what the mind does with what has happened. We really have been maltreated, victims of the wrongdoing of others; and we really have maltreated others, making them victims of our wrongdoing. Not to acknowledge this active participation in the sin of the world is to be either incredibly dense or in chronic denial. Second Sunday of Advent 7 But the point is not the sheer factuality of moral evil. The point is what the mind does with these experiences. It enthrones them as the secret and irreversible truth about the human person. Sinner becomes the depth identity, the loudest interior noise that blocks out any refut- ing voices. The result is an ever-deepening connection of who we are with the wrongs done to us and by us. This inner escalation of sin raises the gospel question: “Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles?” (Matt 7:16). If we think we are unredeemed sinners, we will not bear fruit. We will not ripen and blossom with compassion, justice, love, and respect. Most impor- tantly, we will not be able to hear the real name that Jesus calls us. Our identification with sin becomes a serious roadblock—a mountain in the way, a winding and rough path that means slow travel, a valley that delays arrival. Jesus cannot get to us with his radical address that we are the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and a blessedness that is always present no matter what external circumstances prevail. When we cling to our identity as sinner, his words cannot penetrate the armor of our hardened self-evaluation. He is not the One Who Is to Come, but the One Sin Keeps Away. That is why John the Baptist is needed as preparation for Christ. He enables people to go beyond the mind and let go of sins. This repentance that leads to the forgiveness of sins is a subtle pro- cess, but it is not an impossible one. Two key insights often help us. The first insight involves our awareness of the nature of the mind. When we become aware of the powerful tendency of the mind to hold onto sin, we are already beyond it. We see what it is doing, and so we are more than it. We transcend the mind by noticing how it works. When this happens, a sense of spaciousness replaces the sense of re- striction and a sense of freedom replaces the sense of compulsion. We feel we have walked through a door into a hidden room that feels like home. We are closer to who we really are. The second insight involves an implication of the basic Christian conviction of the unconditional forgiveness of God. God is ultimate reality and, therefore, if God holds the sin, the sin transcends the flow of time and remains permanently present. But if God has let go of the sin, then who is holding on? The forgiveness of God clears the way for us to see where the real action is. The real action is the mind and how it clings to negative evaluations. The question changes from “Will God forgive me?” to “How can I go beyond the mind that clings to sin, even though God has forgiven me?” 8 The Relentless Widow Before we can hear the words that Jesus heard, “You are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased,” we will have to undergo John’s bap- tism which entails a repentance that leads to the forgiveness of sins. If we do this, the path is cleared. Second Sunday of Advent 9