How Marianne Williamson Won Thursday’s Debate (Sunday Homily)

Readings for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: I KGS 19: 16 B, 19-21; PS 16: 1, 2, 5, 7-11; GAL 5: 1, 13-18; I SM 3:9; JN 6: 68C; LK9: 51-62

So, we all watched Thursday’s debate in which Marianne Williamson finally participated and showed the country who she is. And she was magnificent. She demonstrated what her spiritual guidebook, A Course in Miracles calls a refusal to be insane. She embodied that still small voice of conscience – the voice for God – that today’s liturgy of the word distinguishes from the world’s madness.

To begin with consider the madness we witnessed Thursday night. It was a perfect reflection of our insane country, of our insane world, of our insane electoral system. There they were: ten of our presumably best and brightest aspiring to occupy what we’re told is the most powerful office in the world. They shouted, talked over their opponents, self-promoted, bragged, and put their opponents down. They offered complicated “plans” that no one (including themselves) seemed to understand. They ignored the rules of the game, recited canned talking points, and generally made fools of themselves – and of viewers vainly seeking sincerity, genuine leadership and real answers. Except for that brief exchange about busing between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden, it was mostly embarrassing.

And then there were the so-called moderators who allowed the circus to spin so completely out of control. They issued stern warnings about time limits, frequently set them strictly at “thirty seconds,” but then proceeded to allow speakers to go on for three minutes or more. The celebrity hosts were completely arbitrary in addressing their questions unevenly. They repeatedly questioned some of the candidates and ignored others.  

Meanwhile, there was Marianne Williamson off in the corner almost completely out of sight and generally ignored by the hosts. When they finally deigned to notice her polite attempts to contribute, no one seemed to know what to do with her comments. There was never any follow-up or request for clarification. Instead, what she said seemed completely drowned out by the evening’s “excitement,” noise, general chaos, and imperative to change topics. It was as if she were speaking a foreign language. I mean, how do you respond to that “still small voice of conscience” that says:

  • Immigration problems should be understood in historical context; their roots are found in U.S. policy in Central America especially during the 1980s. Such comment invites further discussion. None took place.
  • Removing children from their parents’ arms is kidnapping; putting preschoolers in concentration camps is child abuse. Such crimes should be treated accordingly. What retribution did Marianne have in mind? The question went unasked.
  • Health care “solutions” should address environmental questions about chemicals in our foods, water, and air that make Americans sick. The response: “My next question for Vice-President Biden is . . .”
  • Government programs should be expressions of love, not fear.

As expected, the pundits who afterwards declared “winners” and “losers,” generally put Marianne in the latter category. Their criteria for that judgment were just what you’d expect: Who was louder? Who was more aggressive, more interruptive? Who spoke for more minutes? Who more effectively transgressed the debate “rules” and thereby showed leadership and dominance?

None of this could be further from the spiritual principles Marianne Williamson has espoused for the last 40 years. That spirituality, like Elijah’s, Elisha’s, Paul’s, and Jesus’ in today’s liturgical readings holds that the problems that plague our world have simple answers that have nothing to do with bombast, filibusters, or spectacle. However, the world rejects out of hand the solutions of that still-small-voice of conscience as unrealistic and “out there” in the realm of the irrelevant and impractical. Such blind dismissal is what Paul in today’s reading calls “flesh;” it’s what Jesus elsewhere rejects as “worldly.”  

So, in an effort to put Thursday’s debate in perspective, let me begin by describing where Marianne is coming from; then I’ll get to the relevant readings.

A Course in Miracles

For more than forty years, the foundation of Marianne Williamson’s life and teachings has been A Course in Miracles (ACIM). It’s a three-volume work (a text, 365 daily exercises, and a manual for teachers) that was allegedly (and reluctantly) channeled by Helen Schucman, a Columbia University psychologist and atheist in the three or four years leading up to 1975, the year of the trilogy’s publication. It has since sold millions of copies. Williamson has described ACIM as “basic Christian mysticism.”

The book’s a tough read – certainly not for everyone, though Williamson insists that something like its daily spiritual discipline (a key term for her) is necessary for living a fully human life bent on serving God rather than self. Its guiding prayer is “Where would you have me go? What would you have me do? What would you have me say, and to whom?”

Even tougher than the cryptic text itself is putting into practice the spiritual exercises in Volume II whose entire point is “a complete reversal of thought.” According to ACIM’s constant reminders, we are all prisoners in a cell like Plato’s Cave, where everything the world tells us is exactly the opposite of God’s truth.

To counter such deception, A Course in Miracles has the rare disciple (possessing the discipline to persevere) systematically deconstruct her world. It begins by identifying normal objects like a lamp or desk and helping the student realize that what s/he takes for granted is entirely questionable. Or as Lesson One puts it: “Nothing I see in this room [on this street, from this window, in this place] means anything.” The point is to liberate the ACIM practitioner from all preconceptions and from the illusory dreams the world foists upon us from birth. Those illusions, dreams and nightmares are guided by fear, which, the course teaches, is the opposite of love. In fact, ACIM teaches that fear and love are the only two energetic forces in the entire universe. “Miracles” for A Course in Miracles are changes in perception – a paradigm shift – from fear to love. For Marianne, Donald Trump’s worldview is based primarily on fear; her’s is based on love (which means action based on the recognition of creation’s unity).

According to Williamson’s guide, time, space, and separation of humans into separate entities are all entirely illusory. Such distinctions are dreams that cause all the world’s nightmares, including all the topics addressed in Thursday’s debate. For instance:

  • The illusion of time has us all living in past and future while ignoring the present – the only moment that actually exists, has ever existed, or where true happiness can be found. This means, for example, that inspirational figures like Jesus are literally alive NOW just as they were (according to time’s illusion) 2000 years ago. His Holy Spirit is a present reality.  
  • The dream of space has us taking too seriously human-made distinctions like borders between countries. Yes, they are useful for organizing commerce and travel. But the world as God created it belongs to everyone. It’s a complete aberration and childish to close off borders as inviolable and to proudly proclaim that “From now on, it’s only going to be America first, America first!”
  • Similarly, the dream of separation between humans has us convinced that “we” are here in North America, while refugees are down there at our southern border. According to ACIM however, “There is really only one of us here.” This means that I am female, male, white, black, brown, straight, gay, trans, old and young. And so are you. Others are not simply our sisters and brothers; they are us! What we do to them, we do to ourselves.

With such clarifications in mind, the solution to the world’s problems are readily available and far easier to understand than complicated health care systems or carbon trading. The solutions are forgiveness and atonement. But for ACIM, forgiveness does not mean overlooking another’s sins and generously choosing not to punish them. It means first of all realizing that sin itself is an illusion. It is an archery term for a human mistake – for missing the mark – something every one of us does.

Forgiveness, then, amounts to nothing more than realizing that truth and acting accordingly – as though the forgiven one were our Self (because s/he is!). In a world of complete deception, it means accepting the truth that the ones our culture blames – like immigrants, refugees, people of color, the poor, Muslims, and members of the LGBTQQIA community – are not only completely innocent. Accepting them as our very Self represents the source of our personal and political salvation.  

In this light then, prisons (for particularly dangerous people) become re-education centers for rehabilitation, not punishment. This means that even pathological criminals like Trump, Pence, Pompeo, and Bolton can helpfully be sequestered for a while and then returned to society as reformed, productive people. (I know that’s hard to believe; but it could happen!)

Yes, for Williamson, the goal of it all (of life itself!) is atonement – At-One-Ment – practical realization of a world with room for everyone with illusory distinctions either ignored, or played with, or celebrated in the spirit of party and game. Practically speaking, atonement looks like reparations not only to the descendants of African slaves, but to countries we have destroyed like those Marianne referenced in Central America – but also like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Cuba, and a host of others. Instead of dropping bombs on them or applying sanctions, we should, in effect, be showering them with schools, hospitals, infrastructure, technological assistance, and money. It’s all part of the reparations due.

Imagine what that kind of foreign policy would accomplish and how much cheaper it would be than the trillions we’re now wasting on weapons and war.

As her books, Healing the Soul of America and A Politics of Love show, Williamson stood ready to share such convictions last Thursday night. But she was never asked. And we’re all poorer as a result.

Today’s Readings   

So how is all of that related to this Sunday’s readings? They’re about the contrast between the world’s wisdom – its way of debating, judging, condemning, and praising – and God’s way of interacting with one another and with creation itself. Check out the readings for yourself here and see what you think. My “translations” follow to clarify their cumulative point:

I KGS 19:16B, 19-21
 
We are called
To be prophets
Like Elijah
And his disciple-successor
Elisha
A wealthy farmer
Who understood
That God’s call
Required renouncing
Everything the world
Holds dear:
Family, possessions,
And independence
In order to
Comfort the afflicted
Afflict the comfortable
And feed the hungry.
 
PS 16: 1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11
 
For what ultimately
Belongs to us
Is not
The world’s
Corruption and condemnation
But the God
We deeply are
Who is our very
Food and drink,
The ability to see
Even amidst
The world’s darkness,
The source of calm,
Gladness, and health
Who shows
The path to life,
Joy, and unending delight.
 
 
GAL 5: 1, 13-18
 
As Elisha realized:
World and Spirit
Are completely opposed.
Paul terms
Those worldly values
“Flesh.”
It demands
Slavery and consumption
Of one another!
What God values
Is Christ’s “Spirit.”
Demanding
Nothing more
Than love
Of the other
Who is
(Believe it or not)
Our very Self.
 
I SM 3:9, JN 6: 68C
 
Deep down
We know
All of this
Is true.
 
LK 9: 51-62
 
Jesus did too.
So, on the way
To ultimate destiny
He rejected
The world’s spirit
Of xenophobia, revenge,
Ethnocentrism –
And Hell-Fire missiles.
Instead, he identified with
The homeless,
With life, not death,
And with the Spirit
Of Elisha
Who also
Left plow and oxen
For the sake of
God’s reign.

Conclusion

Please think about those readings in the light of what we witnessed on the debate stage a few nights ago. The other candidates represented what Paul calls “flesh” – you know: the world’s wisdom and way of doing things involving corruption, condemnation, devouring one’s opponent, xenophobia, and addiction to those Hellfire missiles. Meanwhile Marianne seemed bemused by it all. Her few thoughtful remarks said far more than the ones filibustering, pointlessly arguing, self-promoting.

As she says herself, Ms. Williamson is not in this campaign to run against anyone. She’s there to run with her fellow Democrats and to help Americans decide which candidate is best.

I think that candidate is Marianne. She deserves better consideration and a closer hearing than she received on Thursday. Like Elijah, Elisha, Jesus, and Paul, she is a voice for our Deepest Self. She was the winner.  

On Leaving behind Our Childhood Faith and Becoming Adult Believers.

Borg
Readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51

Recently, I had a long talk with one of my dearest friends in the world. After reading a book I recommended, he found himself in crisis.

“I don’t know what to believe now,” he lamented. “I have no idea who Jesus was or is.

I could sympathize with my friend. I even felt a little guilty that I had recommended that he read the book in question – Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. In laypersons’ terms, it acquaints readers with the search for the historical Jesus that has been in full swing for more than 100 years.

Borg concludes that the 4th century Council of Nicaea was correct in its assessment that Jesus was a divine person who was fully God and fully human. It just doesn’t say how that’s possible.

Borg’s own explanation is that Jesus was fully human before his resurrection and fully God in the faith of his bereft disciples after the event, whatever its exact nature might have been. That means that the pre-resurrection Jesus was in important respects very like the rest of us. He too shared our spiritual journey and grew (as the Gospel of Luke says) “in age, and wisdom and grace” (LK 2:52).

“Why wasn’t I told any of this before,” my friend complained.

Well, today’s liturgy of the word addresses my friend’s frustration. It highlights the faith quest that all of us share – even with Jesus.

For starters, think about Elijah from I Kings. At first glance, it seems like a child’s tale. I mean: angels, miraculous bread . . .

And then there are those words attributed to Jesus in the reading from John the Evangelist. There, Jesus claims that he is bread, and we’re supposed to eat his flesh?

It all seems so (excuse me) absurd. We’re told Jesus was talking about the Eucharist or something. But, many of us find it harder and harder to believe even what we’ve been taught about that. God in a piece of bread? It’s easy to understand how faith is threatened rather than strengthened by such readings. Spiritually it can be rather discouraging.

But my friend shouldn’t be discouraged by such thoughts. Neither should any of us. On the contrary, they can be seen as signs we’re growing up spiritually. Painful as it is, perhaps it’s time for reassessing our faith.

I mean (if we’re lucky) there comes a point in everyone’s life where faith has to be reevaluated – where what we were taught and believed as children no longer meets our adult needs. At those times discouragement (despondency is the term used in today’s first reading) is actually a good sign. It can mean we’ve outgrown old ways of thinking and are being called to growth which is always difficult. So, we shouldn’t give up in the face of discouragement, but embrace it with hope.

With that in mind, please realize that today’s readings are about the spiritual journey, the search for God and the discouragement that comes along with it. They are about finding God’s presence hidden in plain sight – within our own flesh (as Jesus put it) – closer to us than our jugular vein.

That theme of spiritual journey is announced in the first reading – the story about the prophet Elijah fed by angels under a juniper tree. Elijah did his work in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 800 years before the birth of Jesus. He is remembered as one of the great, great prophets of the Jewish Testament. In fact, he was so powerful that Jesus’ followers thought Jesus to be the prophet’s reincarnation. John the Baptist’s followers thought the same about him. (Btw: does that mean that Jesus and his contemporaries believed in reincarnation?) So, Elijah is a key figure in our tradition.

In any case, today’s story about Elijah describes the classic stages of the spiritual journey that we’re all called to – from immature believing things about God and Jesus to something more holistic that finds and honors God’s manifestations everywhere.

As we join him in today’s first reading, Elijah is described as beginning a literal journey. He’s traveling to Mt. Horeb (or Sinai) – the place where Moses and the slaves who had escaped from Egypt made their Covenant with their God, Yahweh. Elijah is confused about God (“despondent”), and evidently thinks that by returning to the origins of his faith, he’ll get some clarity.

At this stage of his spiritual growth, Elijah’s faith is less mature. He has a very ethnocentric idea about God. And he’s being called to move beyond that stage of development. The ethnocentric idea has it that God is all about us – our people, our nation, our wars, our prosperity. God is our God and we are his chosen people – truly exceptional. In passages from the Book of Kings just before today’s reading Elijah manifested that understanding of God in a contest with the priests of Baal – a Phoenician God that the King of Israel, Achab and his wife Jezebel had flirted with.

You remember the story. Elijah challenged forty priests to a contest – your sacrifices against ours. Call on your gods to light your sacrificial fires, and I’ll call on Yahweh, and then we’ll see who’s really God. Of course, the priests of Baal can’t get their gods to come through. They chant, and dance, and sing. But the sacrificial wood remains cold. However, Yahweh comes through for his prophet; he lights Elijah’s fire even though in a display of bravado, the prophet had the wood doused with water. Not only that, but Yahweh kills the forty priests for good measure.

That’s the ethnocentric idea: “Our God is better than your god. He has more magic power.” And he’s (this is almost always a male concept) very violent and vindictive. He’ll turn on you and go off on you at the drop of a hat. That’s the God that no longer seems to be working for Elijah. It has made him a wanted man. Queen Jezebel is after him and wants his head. Life is not worth living, the prophet concludes. He wants it all to end – there under the juniper tree.

But two people (whom Elijah later understands as messengers from God) feed him, and on the strength of food provided by strangers he completes his journey and arrives at a cave high on Mt. Sinai. And there, God reveals his true nature not as an ethnocentric God belonging to a single “chosen” people. Neither does God reveal Godself in nature’s elements – not in earth (an earthquake), not in air (a whirlwind), nor in fire (lightning). Instead God (definitely not predominantly male) is disclosed as a “still small voice” within the prophet himself.

And what is a “still” voice, a “small” voice? It seems to me that it’s a communication without sound – one that can be hardly heard – a far cry from the deity who magically lights sacrificial fires and slays Phoenician priests. That magical violent understanding of God seems frankly childish – a God who enters into competition with other “worthy opponents” over whom he has greater magical powers.

No, the revelation to Elijah discloses a God who is much subtler and who resides within all persons be they Hebrew or Phoenician. By traditional standards, it is a “weak” unspectacular God. God is found within; God is small and quiet and belongs to everyone. Or rather, everyone belongs to God regardless of their nationality or race. And in Elijah’s story, it’s not clear that the prophet even grasps the point.

Elijah might not have gotten the point. But it’s evident that his reincarnation in Jesus of Nazareth did – or at least that John the Evangelist writing 60-90 years after Jesus’ death got the point. By then it was possible to put words in Jesus’ mouth that the carpenter from Nazareth could never have said – especially about eating his flesh and above all drinking his blood. Jews, of course, were forbidden from imbibing the blood of any living thing, let alone human blood. However, by John’s time Jesus’ followers had increasingly left behind their Jewish origins. They had become friendly with Gnosticism and were coming to terms with Roman “mystery cults.” Both worshipped “dying and rising gods” who offered “eternal life” to those who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.

Evidently, John the Evangelist and others like John’s contemporary who wrote “The Gospel of Thomas” recognized an affinity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of the Gnostics who found God’s presence in all of creation. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say “Split a block of wood and I am there; lift up a rock and find me there.

In other words, by the end of the first century, Christians were developing an ecumenical understanding of God that went far beyond the Jewish ethnocentrism of Elijah. By that time Christians could see that Jesus was not only a prophet, not only a movement founder of reform within Judaism, not only an insightful story teller and extraordinary healer, but a “Spirit Person” who like the Gnostics found God’s presence in every element of creation – principally in that “still, small voice” revealed to Elijah.

So, Jesus found God’s presence in wood, under rocks, in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of wine, within his self, here and now (not in some afterlife) but in his very flesh and blood. In other words, shared divine presence lent a unity and sameness to everything. Bread and flesh, wine and blood turn out to be the same across time and space. John has Jesus say all of that quite shockingly: “When you eat bread you are eating my flesh; when you drink wine, you are imbibing my blood. We, all of creation, are all one!”

What I’m saying here is that faith changes and grows. Discouragement with old models and paradigms is a hopeful sign. Think of today’s readings and the distance traveled from Elijah’s Magical Killer God to the Still Small Voice to the God present in bread, wine, and in every cell of Jesus’ and our own bodies.

If your own spiritual journey has you longing for further exploration of such adult themes, I can’t do better than to recommend the book I urged that friend of mine to read. I’m referring to Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus again for the First Time. His The Heart of Christianity is similarly helpful.

Like my friend, you might find them initially disturbing. But they will deepen your faith and help make it more worthy of a mature adult.

(Sunday Homily) July 4th in the Land of the Regimented and Home of the Terrified

July 4th

Readings for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2KGS 4: 5-11, 14-18A; PS 89: 2-3, 16-19; ROM 5: 3-4, 8-11; MT 10: 37-42.

Today’s liturgy of the word celebrates hospitality. It lauds the loving reception of prophets, social justice activists (the righteous), and the least among us. It invites us to grow up and offer such welcome despite what family members might think, when prophets like Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus contradict the culture’s received wisdom.  We are to embrace such critics despite the resulting rejection and threats (even death) of the larger community. The liturgy reminds us that openness to prophets, champions of social justice, and their victimized protégées imitates the generosity of Jesus and God himself.

Reflections like these prove especially apt on this Fourth of July weekend, at a time when our national circumstances stand in such sharp contradiction to the ideals we celebrate. To understand what I mean, first consider the occasion; then the liturgy’s sobering reminders about hospitable openness to prophetic insights which in Israel were often critical of the distance between the nation’s ideals and its historical, lived reality.

Let’s begin with our context.

Tuesday, of course, will be Independence Day. It’s an annual festival to laud the Founding Fathers, democracy, and American ideals of freedom, justice, and our “exceptional” Way of Life. It’s a time to remember that we’re a nation of immigrants – those famous “tired, poor, and huddled masses” – seeking better conditions in a land of unlimited possibilities. It’s when we sing the “Star Spangled Banner” recalling that we’re all free and brave.

Some of us will go to baseball games or watch the national pastime on T.V. There, war planes will fly in formation as we sing Francis Scott Key’s hymn that has always connected our banner to rockets and bombs. At the 7th inning stretch, we’ll cheer local servicemen and women just returned from current U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, where (it will be claimed) they’ve bravely defended our democracy and freedom.

We’ll wave flags, attend fireworks displays, and wear clothes with patriotic insignia. There will be parades with high school marching bands. Picnics will feature hot dogs, hamburgers, apple pie, potato salad, beer and Coke. At other gatherings, the Pledge of Allegiance will be recited proclaiming that our nation is one, indivisible and lives “under God.” In the spirit of it all, some will inevitably cheer “U.S.A., U.S.A.”

In short, we’ll celebrate life in America, where patriots are blessed and happy.

Unfortunately, none of that will ring true for me this year. In fact, it hasn’t in a long time.

That’s because as a nation (as in the Israel of Elijah, Elisha and Jesus) we’ve long since abandoned the ideals that supposedly underlie the garish and familiar outward display. In fact, it’s all been hijacked in a coup d’état – or several of them – that we don’t even recognize as having occurred. I’m referring to the assassination of J.F.K. in 1963, and to the selection of George W. Bush by the Supreme Court (rather than by voters) in 2000, and to the recent gradual and undemocratic seizure of all levers of public power by what Chomsky calls “the most dangerous organization in the history of the world,” viz. the Republican Party. Their anti-democratic power grab has been facilitated by:

  • Governmental refusal to abolish the Electoral College despite the fact that two of our last three presidents have been selected by bureaucrats rather than elected by a majority of voters
  • The SCOTUS Citizens United decision equating money with free speech
  • The Supreme Court’s partial repeal of the 1963 Voting Rights Act (in 2013)
  • General voter suppression and intimidation in poor, minority communities
  • Depriving convicted felons of voting rights
  • Insistence on using hackable voting machines with no paper trail
  • Exclusion of third and fourth party candidates from presidential debates
  • Ridiculous gerrymandering
  • Violation of the Constitutions’ mandate to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat until a right-wing extremist could occupy the post

All of that has made untenable any pretension of democracy. Ours is now an entrenched plutocracy, where the popular will doesn’t matter. Our wars have nothing to do with advancing democracy’s cause. In fact, few could even explain (much less defend) why “we” are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen. Can you? I can’t.

So it turns out that our soldiers are not heroes. They are well-meaning, but systematically brain-washed by their “basic training.” That enables them to routinely torture and kill the innocent impoverished people whom they’re mobilized against for reasons the soldiers don’t even question, much less understand. (Isn’t it interesting that ALL our wars are fought against the desperately poor?) Supposedly, our military is fighting terrorists. But those simply wouldn’t exist absent their direct creation by the U.S. government – to defeat the Russians in Afghanistan (during the 1970s) and as a direct response to our country’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003. There is no doubt about it: ISIS was “made in America.” Most of our victimized and victimizing service people know none of this.

Far from being brave and free, the rest of us are all scared out of our wits and are constantly and resignedly monitored by a Big Brother whose unchanging mantra is “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” So we withdraw into our homes (some in literally gated communities) and distract ourselves with our T.V. shows, computers, IPads, and smart phones. We cheer an ignorant and mendacious Reality Show President as he proposes plans to build defensive walls against the immigrant successors of our own ancestors. We treat as normal an entire Know Nothing political party bent on depriving millions of health care and whose climate-change-denial will render the planet unlivable for our grandchildren. Without so much as a whimper, whites look on largely silent as skin-head police thugs are acquitted again and again, even after their neo-lynchings of unarmed black people are unambiguously caught on camera. The blue suited cowards’ unwavering self-defense is: “I feared for my life.”

We’ve become a land of the constantly surveilled and skittishly cowered.

All of that is called into question by today’s biblical readings. Together they celebrate “reception,” i.e. hospitality offered to prophets (social critics), the righteous (social justice champions), and the least among us. All of them, we’re told, are embodiments of the Christ Spirit and of God himself. The welcoming word “receive” appears eight times in today’s brief gospel selection.

And who is it that we’re receiving? As I’ve indicated, they are prophets to begin with. The first reading recounts an episode from Elijah’s successor, Elisha. Elijah, remember, was the fierce social critic of Israel for abandoning its identity as protector of widows, orphans, and immigrants. He excoriated palace sycophants who in the name of God optimistically, patriotically, and blindly proclaimed “peace, peace.” Instead, Elijah correctly predicted, Israel’s chickens would come home to roost. They’d be humiliated by Babylon – the ancient name of present day Iraq. Elijah’s successor, Elisha, continued his mentor’s mission after the latter was swept up to heaven in a fiery chariot.

Jesus of Nazareth as well as John the Baptist were identified as Elijah redivivus. They suffered accordingly. The people turned against them as they had done against all the prophets. Jesus was crucified as an enemy of the Roman Empire and its temple collaborators. According to Mark, the evangelist, the Master was thought insane by his mother and family.

So in today’s gospel, we find Jesus directing us to love God’s Kingdom more than family. (The Kingdom as embodied in Jesus’ person was a vision of what the world would be like if it were governed by God instead of Caesar and his successors.)  In today’s reading, Jesus calls us to damn the consequences of being as outspoken as were he and his prophetic predecessors.

We too must be ready, he says, to take up our cross and follow him. (Remember the cross was the instrument of torture and death reserved for opponents of Rome. His reported reference to “the cross,” then, is highly political.)

So on this Independence Day, perhaps our most patriotic action might be (at least in spirit) to spend the day in sackcloth, ashes, and mourning. It might be best to look critically at the fireworks, parades, ball games, picnics and family gatherings, as though they belonged to foreigners and to reinterpret them as a summons to resist. (In fact, any follower of Jesus, is a foreigner in this world, and a resister by definition.)

In other words, our call this day might be to speak the truth about our lost ideals, and then to endure patiently the fury of the family, friends, and community Jesus tells us to reject for his sake. Our true family, he reminds us, is not composed of “Americans,” but of the prophets, social activists, and “little ones” he, Elijah and Elisha championed so fearlessly.

Fire from Heaven: “Collateral Murder,” Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden (Sunday Homily)

Readings for 13th Sunday in ordinary time: I Kg. 19:16B, 19-21; Ps. 16: 1-2, 5, 7-11; Gal. 5:1, 13-19; Lk. 9: 51-62. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/063013.cfm

The film clip you have just seen has been dubbed “Collateral Murder.” It chronicles a series of attacks by the U.S. Army in Baghdad on July 12, 2007. The attacks directed 30 mm cannon fire at a group of nine to eleven mostly unarmed men – apart from one who carried an AK-47 and another who was holding a grenade launcher. Two in the group were war correspondents for Reuters News Service. Their cameras were mistaken for weapons. After the attack took place, Iraqi civilians arrived on the scene and attempted to aid the wounded. They too were killed. Children in the van which their father stopped to help were also shot. The film was taken by a camera mounted on the gun sights of two AH-64 Apache helicopters.

In 2007, Reuters requested the footage of the airstrikes under the Freedom of Information Act. Their request was denied. Instead the military reported that the shooters in the film had come under attack and were following strict Rules of Engagement.

However in April of 2010, U.S. Army Private, Bradley Manning, released the footage (along with other revealing documents) to the internet whistle-blower website, WikiLeaks. Manning said he wanted to expose crimes whose details routinely crossed his desk as a U.S. Army Intelligence officer. His intention was to bring those specifics to the attention of the American people, and stimulate debate about U.S. military policy and tactics. He judged that policy and its implementation to be largely immoral and contrary to international law. This was true, he said, especially in the criminal war in Iraq which the U.S. entered on false pretenses against a nation that represented no threat to its well-being. Manning found especially shocking the cavalier chatter of those he saw as murderers. Manning’s action also implied that Iraqi citizens had the right to arm themselves against such aggressors brutally invading their sovereign country without provocation.

For his trouble, Private Manning was arrested in July 2010 and held in solitary confinement for more than a year in the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia. His treatment there was described as “torture” by more than one international human rights agency. In February of 2013, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against him. He is currently being tried for alleged crimes that could bring a sentence of life imprisonment and even the death penalty.

I bring those details up this morning because inflicting death from the skies seems particularly relevant to our readings about Elijah and Jesus. There the concept of “fire from heaven” is associated with Elijah, invoked by James and John, and rejected by the non-violent Jesus. The readings raise questions about Christians’ routine support for wars – especially illegal ones – and about our attitudes towards prophetic disturbers of our peace such as Bradley Manning and (most recently) Edward Snowden. Snowden, of course, is the CIA employee who recently leaked details of mass surveillance programs directed against ordinary citizens like you and me. The programs appear to violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

You see, all of them – Elijah, Jesus, Manning, and Snowden have been judged by the State to be trouble-makers. In fact, Elijah was specifically called “the troubler of Israel” by King Ahab (I Kg. 18:17). In retort Elijah replied as perhaps Pvt. Manning would to President Obama. The prophet said in effect, “Now there’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black. You, dear King (or Mr. President), are the real trouble-maker. I am merely pointing that out.”

It was later on, when Ahab’s successor, his son Ahaziah, sent soldiers to arrest Elijah, that the prophet called down fire from heaven to kill the fifty arresting officers. Elijah was a fierce man.

That’s the way James and John wanted Jesus to be. It was the way they imagined God to be – fierce, vengeful, and blood-thirsty. It’s the way unquestioning supporters of “our troops” appear to picture God today. But Jesus refused to reprise Elijah’s vengeance. He rejected the prophet’s violent conception of God.

Instead, the divine as embodied in and described by Jesus is more reminiscent of the Yahweh who appears in today’s responsorial Psalm 16. There God is described as the protective refuge of the afflicted, the one who holds human destiny in his loving hands, the God who shows the way to fullness of life and lasting joy. Jesus’ God was not a war God. Instead, the divine for Jesus evoked self-sacrifice in the face of attack.

All of this means that the cost of discipleship for the followers of Jesus is high – especially when speaking truth to political power as both Elijah and Jesus made a habit of doing.

Jesus says as much in this morning’s gospel. Discipleship, he insists, requires adopting Jesus’ own posture of non-violent resistance which rejected the “fire from heaven” approach of Elijah, James and John. It entails being decisive, leaving home and family, crossing borders, and in the end not having anywhere to rest one’s head. Once we put our hands to that plow, Jesus says, there must be no turning back.

Regardless of their spiritual motivation, that in fact is the price being paid today by Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden as they oppose tyranny in the spirit of Elijah, but especially of the non-violent Jesus.

To put it in terms of Paul’s Letter to Galatia, both Manning and Snowden are living “according to the Spirit.” They are engaged in non-violent resistance to acts of deceit and murder. They are serving Truth and opposing “the father of lies.”

God is truth. Or as Gandhi put it, “Truth is God.” Living according to God’s truth means resisting “flesh,” which was Paul’s term for the way of the world that Jesus found so offensive. To repeat, that is what Pvt. Manning and Edward Snowden are doing. And they are paying the price Jesus said was inevitable in this morning’s gospel. They are homeless and hunted by the same kind of arrogant powers that were mobilized against Elijah and Jesus.

Few of us have the courage of a Manning or Snowden. At the very least, however, they deserve our support against those who would turn our world into the Surveillance State so presciently described in George Orwell’s 1984. Manning and Snowden have put their hand to the plow, and for them there is no turning back.

Recently in my travels I saw a sign in the airport reading, “If you see something, say something.” I thought, “Yeah, unless the one you’re reporting is your boss, the President or the head of the CIA, or other officials engaged in mayhem like that portrayed in ‘Collateral Murder’.” Then if you “say something” you’ll be called a terrorist, traitor and thief.

Tellers of truth like Elijah, Jesus, Bradley Manning and Ed Snowden saw what is true, reported it, and suffered the consequences which are always the lot of prophets. They opposed fire from the sky. They all live(d) according to the Spirit and rejected business as usual (“flesh”).

Thank God for all of them! My God give us the courage to support them and follow their examples!

“The Walking Dead” R Us (Sunday Homily)

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Have you been following the cable TV series “The Walking Dead?” It’s already in its fifth season, and at one point at least, it was the most-watched dramatic telecast series in basic cable history. I see the show as connected with today’s readings about widows, dead children, and how to bring the dead back to life.

In the TV series, sheriff’s deputy, Rick Grimes, awakens from a coma to find a changed world. The apocalypse has happened. Normal life has broken down completely, and the world is dominated by zombies. They are flesh-eaters or “biters.”

So Grimes becomes a “walker” (i.e. a survivor as opposed to a zombie) as he sets out to find his family. Along the way he encounters many other like himself. Those encounters and the flight from the zombies, whose bite is infectious, constitute the premise of each show’s episode.

Many reviewers have attributed the popularity of “The Walking Dead” to its reflection of life in our 21st century. They see our own world largely populated by people who if not walking dead themselves, are at least asleep on their feet.

And it’s worse than that. Today’s walking dead, they say, actually live off the flesh of others. That’s because what we call “life” depends on economic and military systems that cause the hunger-related deaths of people in far off countries as well as the destruction of Mother Earth.

That is, we’re dependent on those who supply us with cheap food, housing and clothes, while the commodities’ producers themselves are paid insufficiently to keep body and soul together. The result is that 21,000 children under five die each day from diarrhea and other absolutely preventable causes. In a sense, according to these critics, when we eat cheap food, we are actually eating those children.

And yet, most of us are totally unaware. As zombies we don’t think about the children whose lives we devour. Our vacant eyes see only the superficial – as though dollar signs had taken the place of our eye-balls. We’re taught to value only what those dollar signs see and measure. Dollar signs can’t penetrate below surface appearances. They isolate us from fellow-felling.

We are the walking dead. Think about that the next time you watch the series.

Can the Walking Dead process be reversed? Today’s liturgy of the word suggests that it can if we follow the examples of Elijah, Paul and Jesus.

Elijah, you recall, was the great prophet of Israel who lived during the 9th Century BCE. In today’s reading from the First Book of Kings, Elijah has found refuge in the home of a widow. The widow’s child, who is young enough to be sitting in her lap, dies from unexplained causes – probably associated with hunger.

The widow immediately blames the prophet. She evidently thought that giving refuge to a “man of God” would protect her from misfortune. She complains, “Why have you done this to me, O man of God.”

Apparently stung by the widow’s complaint, Elijah uses a strange ritual to restore life to her child. Three times he stretches himself on top of her little son while praying, “Let breath return to this child.” Suddenly the widow’s son starts breathing again, and Elijah restores him to his mother.

What was the meaning of his ritual? Was Elijah somehow identifying with the dead toddler? Was he doing something like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?

Hold those questions.

We encounter another widow and her son in today’s reading from Luke. It has Jesus meeting a funeral procession. The crowd is accompanying a widow who has lost her only son. Unlike the case confronted by Elijah, this son is older – Jesus calls him “young man.”

And Luke takes time to mention that the crowd following the coffin was large. Might it have been one of those “demonstration funerals,” we’re used to seeing in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan? I mean where victims of occupation armies use the occasion to express anti-imperial rage. Remember, Jesus’ Palestine was occupied by Rome. And Nain (where this miracle took place) was in the Galilee, a hotbed of anti-Roman insurgency.

I raise the question because in revolutionary settings like Jesus’, occupation forces (like the ones created by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan) routinely identify young men of military age as legitimate targets for the occupiers. The foreign troops kill such men in what our government calls “signature strikes.” I mean this particular widow’s son might well have been killed by Rome. In that hypothesis, Jesus’ restoration of life to the fallen insurgent would have had great political import in terms of Jesus’ relation to the resistance.

In any case, Jesus’ act certainly had important social meaning in the context of Israel’s patriarchy. The mother after all is a widow. And in her male-dominated society, she’s left entirely without means of support. No wonder she is crying.

Jesus is touched by the woman’s tears. Luke says he was filled with compassion for the widow. “Do not weep,” he says. And he touches the coffin. Then Jesus addresses the corpse, “Young man, I tell you arise.” Immediately, Luke tells us, the young man sat up and “began to speak.”

What do you suppose were his first words? Maybe he shouted the Aramaic equivalent of “Viva la revolucion!” or “God is Great!” We’re only told what the people in the funeral procession said, “A great prophet has arisen in our midst. God has visited his people!”

Paul recalls his own visit from God in today’s second reading. And in Paul’s case, there is no doubt that his visit was associated with rejection of empire. Paul had worked for Rome, he reminds his readers. Or more accurately, he worked for the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court that cooperated hand in glove with Palestine’s occupiers.

The Sanhedrin had used Paul to hunt down Jesus’ followers. The court wanted them dead for the same reason they and Palestine’s occupiers had wanted Jesus dead – because both they and Jesus were seen as part of the Jewish resistance to Rome. So Paul was hunting down his fellow-Jews and turning them over to the Sanhedrin. In other words, Paul was a widow-maker. He was a killer of the sons belonging to the widows he made.

Then came Paul’s famous conversion on the road to Damascus. He had a vision and heard Jesus’ voice asking, “Why are you persecuting me?” Those words told him that Jesus and the widows Paul was making, as well as the widows’ sons he was killing, were identical. There was a Jesus-presence in all of them, Paul realized.

What do these readings mean for us today?

I’m suggesting that they yield principles for us as we seek escape from the zombie consciousness that prevents us from seeing our own cannibalism and widow-making as walking dead shuffling through those aisles in Kroger and Wal-Mart.

Do we wish to return to the land of the living? Elijah says, identify with those 21 thousand children our eating habits devour each day. Stretch yourselves over their dead bodies, the prophet suggests. Breathe life back into them. Identify with the children is the Elijah principle.

Do we want to walk the path of Jesus rather than the one dictated by our culture? Let compassion be your guide, Jesus suggests. Compassion for widows and orphans was Jesus’ guiding principle as it was for all the great biblical prophets.

And that includes compassion for our widowed Mother Earth. The patriarchy has abandoned her. She has been left to fend for herself and she watches her offspring die. I mean, species after species is disappearing at the hands of the same economic and military systems that kill those 21,000 toddlers each day. Our widowed Mother Earth needs our compassion too. Jesus’ example calls us to action impelled by that sentiment.

And what action might that be?

Paul’s conversion supplies an answer this morning. Stop cooperating with empire, it tells us. Eat lower on the food chain. Stop shopping in the big boxes. Resist the wars empire depends on to keep those boxes filled. Stop honoring the military and encouraging sons and daughters to “sacrifice” themselves on behalf of the corporations that require war and widow-making to retain and increase market shares.

In summary, today’s readings call us away from business as usual. They tell us that we don’t have to be zombies. They ask us all to leave behind our lives of lethargy and sleep. The readings invite us to imitate Elijah and his identification with a dead child. They ask us to be like Jesus in his compassion for a suffering single mom. Paul tells us to dis-identify with empire. The readings urge us to become “Walkers” on the Jesus path of compassion.

Abram’s Self-Butchering God (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: Gn. 15:5-12, 17-18; Ps. 27:1, 7-9, 13-14; Phil. 3:17-4:1; Lk. M9:28B-36. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/022413.cfm

For the last several months I’ve been involved with an alternative faith community in central Kentucky. It calls itself the “Ecumenical Table.” It’s composed of people like me who for one reason or another find ourselves dissatisfied with our local church experiences.

In my own case, I find Sunday experiences in my Catholic parish irrelevant to my life and disconnected from reality in general. Here we are living in a world of rampant violence, widespread addictions, permanent war, torture, climate change, drone attacks on the innocent, and rather complete cultural disintegration, and yet in church none of these problems is even mentioned.

We pretend to be following the example of a Martyr who opposed empire and religious hypocrisy on the one hand, and who literally identified with the tortured and victims of capital punishment on the other. And still we carry on as though that Martyr, Jesus of Nazareth, was somehow like white bourgeois Americans and blessed our addiction to imperial overconsumption and violence. I find that painful to endure.

And so I find myself following the hallowed example of religious protesters (Protestants) over the last 2000 years, and looking for something better. Actually, I find myself following the example of the Jewish Testament’s Abram, and that of Jesus himself as he’s pictured in today’s gospel account of his transfiguration. Abram was himself looking for something better. And in today’s reading, he receives assurance that the One in whom we live and move and have our being would lead him there. For his part, Jesus of Nazareth, received reassurance in today’s gospel episode that his life as professional troublemaker was on the right track. Let me explain. . . .

Abram was an ancient sheik, who turned out to be the furthest back ancestor the Jews could remember. He originally lived in ancient Babylon but felt called to move off to the west, to start over, find a new homeland, and start a new independent tribe. He somehow felt that God was calling him to do all these things. Problem was, Abram was already advanced in years and his wife, Sarah, was beyond menopause. Still, he felt that God was promising him a large family – a tribe whose people would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens.

In today’s readings, Abram evidently feels time is running out on God’s promise. The sheik is looking for reassurance. It comes in the form of a dream. The dream answers his question: how trustworthy is God? How far can you trust an agreement – a covenant – with this God who has promised him a large family? Can God be trusted to guide Abram as he starts over and begins a new life?

Abram’s question makes this tribal pastoralist dream of the most solemn human covenant he knew of – the “Covenant of Pieces.” According to tribal practice, when an inferior made an important agreement with a patron – say to transfer property, do work, fight a battle, or repay a debt – he had to go through an extremely graphic pledge ritual. The ceremony involved sacrificing animals from the client’s flock (in today’s reading a mature heifer, she goat and a ram along with a turtle dove and a pigeon). The inferior was to split the animals in two, and align the carcasses in rows so that they formed a path with one half the heifer’s carcass on the left and the other on the right, and the same with the she goat and ram. Then with the patron holding his hand, the client was to solemnly walk between the carcasses taking note of their dead rotting state, their putrid smell, and of the vultures flying overhead.

All of this was a reminder of the power the client was handing over to his patron. He was saying in effect, if I don’t keep my pledge, I’m giving you permission to do this to me and to my family. You can butcher us all and leave us to rot in the sun. That’s a pretty serious commitment. Sheik Abram could think of nothing more solemn, reassuring or binding.

So his dream which at first glance seems so strange and confusing to us was extremely comforting to him as a tribal pastoralist. It had God (in the form of fire and smoke) playing the role of client to Abram. God was performing the “pieces” ritual in Abram’s presence by running the gauntlet formed by rotting meat. That is if God did not keep his word, God was willing to be butchered! This, of course, could never happen. So the dream meant God could never not keep God’s word. A God willing to be butchered rather than break his word? Reassuring indeed!

Jesus obtains similarly strong reassurance from Abram’s Servant God in today’s reading from Luke. The young carpenter is on his way to Jerusalem. And something extremely risky is about to happen there. He’s determined to be part of it. The risky action has to do with the temple and Jesus’ dissatisfaction with what routinely happens there. (It was not unlike the dissatisfaction with church that I referenced earlier.)

The temple has become worse than irrelevant to the situation of his people living under Roman oppression. What happens there not only ignores Jewish political reality. The temple leadership has become the most important Jewish collaborator of the oppressing power. And Jesus has decided to address that intolerable situation.

Everyone knows that a big demonstration against the Romans is planned in Jerusalem for the weekend of Passover. There’ll be chanting mobs. The slogans are already set. “Hosanna, hosanna, in the highest” will be one chant. Another will be “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Hosanna” is the key word here. It means “save us!” The Romans won’t notice that the real meaning is “Save us from the Romans.” “Restore an independent Israel – like David’s kingdom!”

Jesus has heard that one of the main organizers of the demonstration is the guerrilla Zealot called Barabbas. Barabbas doesn’t call what’s planned a “demonstration.” He prefers the term “The Uprising” or “ the Insurrection” (Mk. 15). Barabbas has a following as enthusiastic as that of Jesus. After all, Barabbas is a “sicarius” – a guerrilla whose solemn mission is to assassinate Roman soldiers. His courage has made him a hero to the crowds. (John Dominic Cross compares him to the Mel Gibson character in “The Patriot.”)

Jesus’ assigned part in the demonstration will be to attack the Temple and symbolically destroy it. He plans to enter the temple with his friends and disrupt business as usual. They’ll all shout at the money-changers whose business exploits the poor. They’ll turn over their tables. As a proponent of non-violence, they’re thinking not in Barabbas’ terms of “uprising,” but of forcing God’s hand to bring in the Lord’s “Kingdom” to replace Roman domination. Passover, the Jewish holiday of national independence could not be a more appropriate time for the planned event. Jesus is thinking in terms of “Exodus.”

And yet, this peasant from Galilee is troubled by it all. What if the plan doesn’t work and God’s Kingdom doesn’t dawn this Passover? What if the Romans succeed in doing what they’ve always done in response to uprisings and demonstrations? Pilate’s standing order to deal with lower class disturbances is simply to arrest everyone involved and crucify them all as terrorists. Why would it be different this time? Like Abram before him, Jesus has doubts.

So before setting out for Jerusalem, he takes his three closest friends and ascends a mountain for a long night of prayer. He’s seeking reassurance before the single most important act in his life. As usual, Peter, James and John soon fall fast asleep. True to form they are uncomprehending and dull.

However, while the lazy fall into unconsciousness, the ever-alert and thoughtful Jesus has a vision. Moses appears to him, and so does Elijah. (Together they represent the entire Jewish scriptural testament – the law and the prophets.) This means that on this mountain of prayer, Jesus considers his contemplated path in the light of his people’s entire tradition.

Last week, we saw in the reading from Deuteronomy 26, that tradition centered on the Exodus. Fittingly then, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah “discuss” what is about to take place in Jerusalem. Or as Luke puts it, “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Jesus Exodus!

It is easy to imagine Moses’ part in the conversation. That would be to remind Jesus of the chances Moses took when he led the original Exodus from Egypt. That might have failed too. Elijah’s part was likely to recall for Jesus the “prophet script” that all prophets must follow. That script has God’s spokespersons speaking truth to power and suffering the inevitable consequences. Elijah reminds Jesus: So what if Barabbas and those following the path of violence are defeated again? So what if Jesus’ non-violent direct action in the temple fails to bring in the Kingdom? So what if Jesus is arrested and crucified? That’s just the cost of doing prophetic business. Despite appearances to the contrary, Abram’s faithful God will somehow triumph in the end.

Is there a message here for us – in the experience of Abram and of Jesus, both of them seeking reassurance as they embark on risky paths in response to a compassionate Servant God? Is there hidden meaning for those of us who like Abram are seeking a new home and “church” community blessed by a God who would rather die than be unfaithful? Is there a message here for followers of the Nazarene rabbi who cannot separate worship and political commitment and activism?

Those are the kind of questions Christians should ask and discuss around Ecumenical Tables everywhere on this Second Sunday of Lent.

(Discussion follows)

How’s Your Spiritual Journey Going? (Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Readings: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51

How’s your spiritual journey going these days?

Does the question surprise you?

“’Journey’ did you say?” you might ask. “What journey?”

Well, my question was about growth in awareness of God’s presence and of God’s various manifestations. Do you feel yourself closer to God than you did, say, as a child?

“Oh, if that’s what you mean,” you might answer, “there hasn’t been much going on there. Actually, I’m quite discouraged about the whole thing. There hasn’t really been much of what I’d call ‘growth.’ I’m kind of treading water. And then when I think something’s going on – after I’ve read a good book or article on the topic – some bishop or priest tells me I’m wrong and am losing my faith. It seems they want me to stand still rather than ‘journey,’

“For instance, take today’s readings. That story about Elijah seems like a child’s tale. I mean: angels, miraculous bread  . . .  And then those words of Jesus: he is bread; we’re supposed to eat his flesh? It all seems so (excuse me) absurd. I suppose Jesus was talking about the Eucharist or something. But I’m finding it harder and harder to believe even what I’ve been taught about that. God in a piece of bread? I’m afraid my faith is threatened rather than strengthened by readings like those in this morning’s liturgy. Spiritually I’m feeling rather discouraged.”

If what I’ve just said reflects your own thoughts and feelings, you’re in good company. There comes a point in everyone’s life where faith has to be reassessed – where what we were taught and believed as children no longer meets our adult needs. At those times discouragement (despondency is the term used in today’s first reading) is actually a good sign. It can mean we’ve outgrown old ways of thinking and are being called to growth which is always difficult. So we shouldn’t give up in the face of discouragement, but embrace it with hope.

With that in mind, please realize that today’s readings are about the spiritual journey, the search for God and the discouragement that comes along with it. They are about finding God’s presence hidden in plain sight – within our own flesh (as Jesus put it) – closer to us than our jugular vein.

That theme of spiritual journey is announced in the first reading – the story about the prophet Elijah fed by angels under a juniper tree. Elijah did his work in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 800 years before the birth of Jesus. He is remembered as one of the great, great prophets of the Jewish Testament. In fact, he was so powerful that Jesus’ followers thought Jesus to be the prophet’s reincarnation. John the Baptist’s followers thought the same about him. (Btw: does that mean that Jesus and his contemporaries believed in reincarnation?) So Elijah is a key figure in our tradition.

In any case, today’s story about Elijah describes the classic stages of the spiritual journey that we’re all called to – from immature believing things about God and Jesus to something more holistic that finds and honors God’s manifestations everywhere.  

As we join him in today’s first reading, Elijah is described as beginning a literal journey. He’s traveling to Mt. Horeb (or Sinai) – the place where Moses and the slaves who had escaped from Egypt made their Covenant with their God, Yahweh.  As pick up the story, Elijah is confused about God (“despondent”), and evidently thinks that by returning to the origins of his faith, he’ll get some clarity.

At this stage of his spiritual growth, Elijah’s faith is less mature. He has a very ethnocentric idea about God. And he’s being called to move beyond that stage of development. The ethnocentric idea has it that God is all about us – our people, our nation, our wars, our prosperity. God is our God and we are his chosen people – truly exceptional. In passages from the Book of Kings just before today’s reading Elijah manifested that understanding of God in a contest with the priests of Baal – a Phoenician God that the King of Israel, Achab and his wife Jezebel had flirted with.

You remember the story. Elijah challenged forty priests to a contest – your sacrifices against ours. Call on your gods to light your sacrificial fires, and I’ll call on Yahweh, and then we’ll see who’s really God. Of course, the priests of Baal can’t get their gods to come through. They chant, and dance, and sing. But the sacrificial wood remains cold. However Yahweh comes through for his prophet; he lights Elijah’s fire even though in a display of bravado, the prophet had the wood doused with water. Not only that, but Yahweh kills the forty priests for good measure.

That’s the ethnocentric idea: “Our God is better than your god. He has more magic power.” And he’s (this is almost always a male concept) very violent and vindictive. He’ll turn on you and go off on you at the drop of a hat. That’s the God that no longer seems to be working for Elijah. It has made him a wanted man. Queen Jezebel is after him and wants his head. Life is not worth living, the prophet concludes. He wants it all to end – there under the juniper tree.

But two people (whom Elijah later understands as messengers from God) feed him, and on the strength of food provided by strangers he completes his journey and arrives at a cave high on Mt. Sinai. And there God reveals his true nature not as an ethnocentric God belonging to a single “chosen” people. Neither does God reveal Godself in nature’s elements – not in earth (an earthquake), not in air (a whirlwind), nor in fire (lightning). Instead God (definitely not predominantly male) is disclosed as a “still small voice” within the prophet himself.

And what is a “still” voice, a “small” voice? It seems to me that it’s a communication without sound – one that can be hardly heard – a far cry from the deity who magically lights sacrificial fires and slays Phoenician priests. That magical violent understanding of God seems frankly childish – a God who enters into competition with other “worthy opponents” over whom he has greater magical powers.

No, the revelation to Elijah discloses a God who is much more subtle and who resides within all persons be they Hebrew or Phoenician. By traditional standards, it is a “weak” unspectacular God. God is found within; God is small and quiet and belongs to everyone. Or rather, everyone belongs to God regardless of their nationality or race. And in Elijah’s story, it’s not clear that the prophet even grasps the point.

Elijah might not have gotten the point. But it’s clear that his reincarnation in Jesus of Nazareth did – or at least that John the Evangelist writing 60-90 years after Jesus’ death got the point. By then it was possible to put words in Jesus’ mouth that the carpenter from Nazareth could never have said – especially about eating his flesh and above all drinking his blood. Jews, of course, were forbidden from imbibing the blood of any living thing, let alone human blood. However by John’s time Jesus’ followers had increasingly left behind their Jewish origins. They had become friendly with Gnosticism and were coming to terms with Roman “mystery cults.” Both worshipped “dying and rising gods” who offered “eternal life” to those who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.

Evidently, John the Evangelist and others like John’s contemporary who wrote “The Gospel of Thomas” recognized an affinity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of the Gnostics who found God’s presence in all of creation. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say “Split a block of wood and I am there; lift up a rock and find me there.”

 In other words, by the end of the first century, Christians were developing an ecumenical understanding of God that went far beyond the Jewish ethnocentrism of Elijah. By that time Christians could see that Jesus was not only a prophet, not only a movement founder of reform within Judaism,  not only an insightful story teller and extraordinary healer, but a “Spirit Person” who like the Gnostics found God’s presence in every element of creation – principally in that “still, small voice” revealed to Elijah.

So Jesus found God’s presence in wood, under rocks, in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of wine, within his self, here and now (not in some afterlife) but in his very flesh and blood. In other words, shared divine presence lent a unity and sameness to everything. Bread and flesh, wine and blood turn out to be the same across time and space. John has Jesus say all of that quite shockingly: “When you eat bread you are eating my flesh; when you drink wine, you are imbibing my blood. We, all of creation, are all one!”

What I’m saying here is that faith changes and grows. Discouragement with old models and paradigms is a hopeful sign. Think of today’s readings and the distance traveled from Elijah’s Magical Killer God to the Still Small Voice to the God present in bread, wine, and in every cell of Jesus’ and our own bodies.

If your own spiritual journey has you longing for further exploration of such adult themes, I can’t do better than to urge you along your ways by recommending Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. His Meeting Jesus again for the First Time is similarly helpful. Or perhaps during Advent or Lent we can get together to discuss those books and truly renew our faith. What do you think? (Discussion follows)