Reflection for Prison Volunteers – 26 April 2015 – “Gateways of Possibilities”


RESIDENTS ENCOUNTER CHRIST (REC)

A Day of Reflection at St. Vincent de Paul Church, Albany, NY for volunteers in prison ministry

April 11, 2015

INTRODUCTION. There is the story of the carpenter who loved wood. He loved it so much that he kept stealing pieces, little by little, from the job site. He finally felt some remorse and decided to go to confession. After telling his sin the priest gave him a penance — to make nine novenas. The carpenter, not familiar with novenas, scratched his head and said to the priest. “Excuse me, Father. I have never made even one novena but … if you give me the plans I am sure I have enough wood to make all nine of them.”

As many of you know I make my living as an architectural consultant specializing in houses of worship. In my practice I am always mixing religion, worship, faith formation and social action with art and architecture. I am also a priest who prays with others here at St. Vincent’s parish, who tries to preach well, who hears confessions and who, like you, is willing to help anyone who wants to talk about their problems or life in general.

In the world of religious art and architecture my imagination soars with ideas always looking for creative ways to deal with challenges posed in the design of churches and synagogues. I rely on the language of metaphors to help congregations understand the connections between architecture, art and worship. I also find such a method to be helpful in liturgical prayer and homily preparation.

EXAMPLES. For example, we Christians are on a journey. Although we have our eyes on the finish line, the ultimate prize for running the race, as Paul would call it, the kingdom of God is not yet fully realized here on earth. We continue to seek it. We are spiritual seekers. Translated into architectural features, the pathways, sidewalks, parking lots, leading to and from a church building, if landscaped appropriately, can help worshipers remember that they are on a “spiritual journey” and not just rushing to get to the church on time.

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN. The metaphorical connections between biblical images and church buildings provides a foundation for that church edifice. Here’s another image one that I propose we focus on this morning — the gateway or threshold. Let us listen to this passage from the evangelist John 10:1-10.

1 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber; 2 but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. 9 I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

The passage we just heard has to be taken in context. As I offer this interpretation I invite you to start making connections with the ministry you have in the REC program. Think about the prisoners and the institutions within which they live and what your ministry as shepherds can do to give them hope.

Jesus just finished healing a blind man who was then condemned and excommunicated by the Pharisees. They claimed the blind man’s sinfulness caused his blindness. At one time or another the Pharisees were a political party, a social movement during the time of the Babylonian exile. Much later, and after the destruction of the second temple (70 CE), the Pharisaic beliefs served as a foundation for the the liturgical rites of Rabbinic Judaism. These guys had a lot of power over the Jews.

Jesus confronts the Pharisees and preaches to the crowds that the ways of the Pharisees are not always the ways of God. Jesus opens his sermon using the familiar images of shepherds and sheep.

In that period of history sheep were kept either in a public stockade in a village or out in the countryside. In the village, a gatekeeper would watch the sheep. In the country there was no gate only an enclosure or pen, a low wall of piled rocks. At night the shepherd would sleep across the entry to keep the sheep in and wild animals out.

Let’s take a closer look at the verses of this gospel as we try to make connections with our ministry to the inmates and others participating in the REC program.

Verse 1 — Access to sheep was possible in only two ways: by way of the shepherd or sneaking in over the wall. Jesus warned against those who use deception to lead others astray and those who use force and manipulation to get their way. Those were the Pharisees. There is a pharisee in each one of us, whether we are in jail or not. One could say we are imprisoned by pharisaical notions. How can we help ourselves and inmates deal with it?

Verse 2-4 — The vast majority of the Pharisees probably thought they were doing the correct thing. Religion is about establishing right relationships with God and others. Good shepherds are called by God to be disciples. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. As ministers in the REC program do we enter the sheepfold with the inmates or do we feel like we are somehow outside that pen?

Jesus identified with people who lived on the fringe of society, outcasts, those who were banned because of some disease. How do we identify with the prisoners in the REC program.

The good shepherd is one who is led by God and in turn leads sheep to God. False shepherds have their own agendas which could lead others astray. Do all REC leaders understand themselves to be good shepherds called by God? Do we have our own agendas or do we empathize with the life stories of the inmates?

A good shepherd speak the things of God not his or her own words. Shepherds will not allow someone to live in a perpetual state of sinfulness without confrontation and conviction.

The word of God is a two-edged sword, a judge of ideas and thoughts. Is this the bottom line in the REC ministry — that no one can be taken prisoner by sinfulness forever; that there is a bigger sheepfold to live in even if in prison? Who shepherds the notion that even someone who commits the worst crime can experience the mercy of God?

Verses 6-10 — This is precisely what Jesus is saying to us this morning. He said, “I am the door! To go into the fold, you must go through me. To go out to pasture, you must go through me.” Passage through the gateways of salvation, security and satisfaction are important in anyone’s life. How do we help the residents in the REC program understand this powerful message? That gateways can swing both ways through Christ.

APPLICATION. I use the gospel of John to help congregations make the connections between Jesus Christ the shepherd, the gateway, and the design of the front door of their churches. These portals are reminders that we go through Jesus to get to the prize, to eternal life. We leave through those doors to shepherd others.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell once wrote that the door to a sacred place is not an ordinary door. On the other side of sacred doors  anything is possible. Loneliness can find companionship. Sickness can turn to health. There is food and drink for those who are undernourished. Evil turns to good. Sentences give way to paroles and releases. Sin becomes grace. Even death gives over to resurrection. Where there is God anything is possible. All of the members of the faith community inside the church or the sheepfold (clergy and laity alike) are both the sheep and the shepherds.

Inmates inside prison walls are also, in some mysterious way, inside the sheep gate. Maybe society wants to forget them and punish them but God does not. God is merciful even to the sinner. Pope Francis, bishop of Rome, has made “mercy” the theme of his ministry and this weekend is announcing a Holy Year of Mercy.

THE SHEEP GATE METAPHOR. I think of the sheep gate as a metaphor for our contemplation during this retreat. There are many gateways in jails especially maximum security prisons. While we have to navigate them to get in they are really designed to make it difficult for inmates to get out or to move about freely inside.

There are also many corrals or pens in these places. Pen is a term usually used to describe a penitentiary — a place to do penance. Barbed wire, locked gates, cold corridors and cells, bland colors, small windows, unappetizing food and drink and the yards which turn into playgrounds and battlefields. All of these factors are designed to dehumanize the occupants.

BEING MORTAL REFERENCES. Prisons, jails, any place of incarceration are inhumane places. I am reading, as many of you probably have, Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande. It is an urgent book not only about death and dying but living in your final hours with dignity. Many stories in the book take place in hospitals, hospices, assisted living places and nursing homes. I could not help but make some comparisons. The process of dying, is in many ways, similar to being imprisoned, especially if sentenced to life or execution.

HOME. In the chapter called “Assistance” Gawande speaks about the meaning of the word “home.” It is a place where your priorities hold sway. You decide how to spend your time and how to share your space. You manage your own possessions. This is not the case in a nursing home or in a prison.

Fifty years ago sociologist Erving Goffman (cited in Being Mortal, p. 73) noted the likeness between prisons and nursing homes in his book Asylum. He wrote, they were along with military training camps, orphanages and mental hospitals, “total institutions” — places largely cut off from wider society. In ordinary life the individual tends to sleep, play and work in different places, with different people, under different authorities and without an overall rational plan. “Total institutions” like prisons are the opposite.

TOTAL INSTITUTIONS. In nursing homes and prisons all aspects of life are carried out in the same place under the same central authority. Daily activities are done in the company of large batches of other people; all are treated alike and are required to do the same thing together. Everything is tightly scheduled with all activities being imposed by a system of rules and officials. All are designed to fulfill the aims of the institution. (Being Mortal, p. 74) This is like being confined to a compound with no shepherd to care for you, your health or your safety.

HUMAN MOTIVATION. Buildings have the power to shape human behavior. The design of a nursing home or a prison affects all aspects of human development. Atul Gawande’s book references Abraham Maslov’s familiar “Theory of Human Motivation.” (Being Mortal, p. 93). Here are the levels listed by Maslov.

  • Basic needs — essentials of physiological survival (food, water, air) and safety (law, order and stability)
  • The need for love and belonging
  • The opportunity to attain personal goals, to master knowledge, skills; to be recognized and rewarded for accomplishments.
  • The desire for self-actualization or self-fulfillment through pursuit of moral ideas and creativity for their own sake.

Dr. Gawande adds another level — acquiring the transcendent desire to see and help others achieve their potential. Is that what our ministry in REC is supposed to do? Help others reach their potential as we reach for ours?

IMPRISONMENT. These levels of human motivation apply to REC ministers ourselves as well as the inmates we try to serve. All of these levels of motivation and growth are not easily experienced, if at all, while doing time in jail. REC ministers, shepherds of God, can help the inmates.

Imprisonment, especially a life sentence, or the death penalty, can be similar to the experience of someone with a serious, incurable illness. According to Dr. Gawande,

  • They want to avoid suffering
  • They want to strengthen relationship with family and friends
  • They want to be mentally aware
  • They do not want to be a burden to others
  • They want to have a sense that their life is complete in some way

In talking to inmates during confession time this is what other clergy and I hear. The inmates are sorry for what they have done, they worry about their wives or girl friends and children, they feel remorse for the crime committed, they await parole and possibly release, they long for a second chance.  All of this weighs on them while trying to cope with the corruption, temptations and boredom that exist inside prison walls.

The system may not provide all of the opportunities for these residents to realize what they hope for. REC ministers can bring them hope. And, when hope fails, faith in a merciful God can alleviate some of the pain and suffering — just like those patients dying from an incurable disease who rely on their faith in God.

ARCHITECTURAL REFERENCES. Keeping the scriptural metaphor in mind 1) that Jesus is the sheep gate who calls us to a place where life, peace and justice are possible; 2) that Jesus is a gateway to new life, listen to this description of the toughest federal prison in the United States — ADX in Florence, Colorado. (Mark Binelli “This Place is Not Designed for Humanity” in The New York Times Magazine, March 29, 2015, p. 36)

It can house up to 500 prisoners in eight units. Inmates spend their days in 12 by 7 foot cells with thick concrete walls with double sets of sliding metal doors with solid exteriors so prisoners cannot see one another. A single window three feet high but only four inches wide offers a glimpse of the sky. Each cell has a sink-toilet combo and an automated shower. Prisoners sleep on concrete beds with thin mattresses. The cells do have televisions and there is access to books and periodicals, arts and crafts materials.

The inmates are allowed ten hours of exercise each week outside their cells. However, in the outdoor recreation yard each prisoner remains confined to an individual cage. All meals come through a slot in the cell door as does any communication with guards, chaplains, counselors.

The most dangerous and infamous prisoners are sent there. The Oklahoma City bomber (Terry Nichols). The doctor who may have poisoned up to 60 patients (Michael Swango). The mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (Ramzi Yousef). The 9/11 conspirator (Zacarias Moussaoui). The Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski).

PRISON DESIGN, AN ETHICAL ISSUE. I belong to the American Institute of Architects. The design of prisons has become for some architects a burning ethical issue. Although the Institute cannot dictate to its members what building types they should design there is some movement to raise the consciousness of the members who do design prisons, solitary confinement cells and death chambers.

Architectural critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times (“Prison Architecture and the Question of Ethics, February 16, 2015). “Today, prison design is a civic cause for some architects who specialize in criminal justice and care about humane design. There is a lot of research documenting how the right kinds of design reduce violence inside prisons and even recidivism. Architects can help ensure that prisons don’t succumb to our worst instincts — that they are about spend the least amount of money to create the most horrendous places possible, in the name of vengeance — but promote rehabilitation and peace.”

INVITATION. Keeping all of these vignettes drawn from scripture, human development, freedom, and prison design in your minds I now invite you to play with the image of the gateway. The doorways in prisons do swing both ways but not for everyone. For the inmates the prison is full of dead ends with no outlets. The guards and REC ministers can come and go.

Using the bible as a source take some time now to discuss the ways in which the images conjured up in the gospel of John — Pharisees, gateways, passages, corrals, sheep, shepherds — can be translated into helpful tools for your ministry as you tend to prisoners and yourselves as REC volunteers.

Let’s take about ten minutes or so to think about the residents we serve. Using the handout that lists nine questions for your consideration ask yourselves “How would we recalculate our ministry as shepherds who open gateways of new possibilities.”

HOW ARE WE DOING IN OUR REC MINISTRY?

Am I a gateway of possibilities for the residents? (John 10:1-10)

Is this ministry more about me and my needs or the inmates I am called to shepherd?

Do I try to understand what the prisoners are experiencing inside or do I talk too much?

How do I help inmates help one another?

How do I explain the authority of the bible to the residents?

Do the testimonies I give during REC take into consideration the stories shared by the residents?

How do I, how do we, as a REC team, minister to the staff?

Fr. Rick Shaw, long time prison chaplain, wrote, “Jail ministry needs to be kept away from politicized agendas … especially since ministry inside jails means ministering to staff as well as to inmates.” (Naked as a Jailbird, p 15)

What can I do to improve my ministry as a shepherd who cares for the residents encountering Christ

How do we as REC ministers shepherd one another in our calling?

Sunday Homily 12 April 2015 “We Love You, Thomas”


“We Love You, Thomas”

A Homily by C. Elizabeth (Betsy) Rowe-Manning

Parish Life Director, St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, New York

Second Sunday of Easter — April 12, 2015

‘Tis the season of rich symbols – water, oil, fire and light, the coming of Spring, (FINALLY)  when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and our own.  ‘Tis the season of sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist.  Check out the bulletin – the pictures are a chronicle of the great vigil — Jessica and Meg’s [1] welcome into the church, this community’s re-commitment to baptismal promises.  

‘Tis the season of mystagogy – when we look back to our experience of the Sacred Triduum and ask: What exactly happened at the liturgy?  How were we affected by these rites?  What are the implications of these liturgical experiences for our everyday life? Jessica, Meg and all of us will grapple with these questions until Pentecost and beyond,

I think it is a courageous act to profess or to renew promises of faith today. Many Catholics are rightfully dismayed and discouraged by the arguments over matters as diverse as liturgy, the pope, politics and morality. These disagreements may, at times, seem petty but, more often, are significant issues, painful and isolating.

There is nothing new or unique about challenging the establishment.  The apostle Thomas did just that.  He did not witness the risen Lord and so hedged his bets on the reality of the resurrection despite the reports of the other apostles.  Why would they lie to him in his grief?  Still, he said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas persisted in his unbelief, unconvinced by the other apostles, until a week later when Jesus’ disciples “were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.  Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them…”

How did the other disciples treat Thomas during that week?  They did not vilify or cast him out for doubting, marginalize him or call him a “cafeteria apostle”.  They just  assumed  he would stay with them, even in the midst of his doubt.

We all need and rely the faithfulness of God’s love to support us when we are painfully uncertain, but  the support of other believers is essential, not “even” when we disagree, but  especially  when we disagree  Thomas did not believe initially and only believed when he saw Jesus in the risen flesh.  “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  

Essential in all of this, though, and always overlooked, is that in the midst of Thomas’ profound disagreement with the other disciples regarding Jesus’ resurrection, he remained within the fold of the sisters and brothers. [2] Perhaps we have mistakenly entitled this story “The Doubting Thomas” when the more appropriate title should be “The Faithful Community.”

Today Karen and Adam, Danielle and Brian present their children Fiona Sussman and Cullen William for baptism.  We do promise to support them AND Jessica and Meg as together we walk in faith to the future.

Allow me to use the words of Walter Burghardt, a respected theologian. [3] His words express my thoughts, exactly!

Jessica, Meg, Fiona, and Cullen before we welcome you through symbol and ritual into this paradoxical people, this community of contradictions, let me make an uncommonly honest confession.  In the course of a half century (and more) I have seen more Catholic corruption than most Catholics read of.  I have tasted it.  I have been reasonably corrupt myself.  And yet I joy in this Church, this living, throbbing, sinning people of God:  I love it with a crucifying passion.  Why?  For all the Catholic hate, I experience here a community of love. For all the institutional idiocy, I find here tradition of reason.  For all the individual repression, I breathe here an air of freedom.  For all the fear of sex, I discover here the redemption of my body.  In an age so inhuman, I touch here tears of compassion.  In a world so grim and humorless, I share here rich joy and earthly laughter.  In the midst of death, I hear here an incomparable stress on life. For all the absence of God, I sense here the presence of Christ …. I pray, Jessica, Meg, Skylar, Fiona and Cullen, that your lives within this community, your experience of a strange God and a still stranger people, will rival mine.

Come now Fiona and Cullen and take your first steps into a kingdom you can only enter through hardship and tribulation, into a community that will not wipe away your every tear but does promise that we will touch each tear with our love. [4]

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1.  Jessica Burns celebrated her baptism, confirmation and first eucharist at this year’s Easter Vigil. Meg Bassinson came into full communion with the Catholic church.

2. Martens, John W. “One Heart and Soul” in AMERICA, Vol 212, No. 12, April 6, 2015

3. Paraphrased from a baptismal homily which Fr. Walter J. Burghardt delivered at St. Paul’s Chapel, Columbia University, 1973, entitled “A Strange God, a Strange People”

4. Burghardt, Walter J. Tell the Next Generation: Homilies and Near Homilies (NY: Paulist Press, 1980)

Easter Sunday Homily – 5 April 2015 – From Fear to Freedom


Easter B – April 5, 2015 – From Fear to Freedom

Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Psalm 118: 1-2, 16-17, 22-23; 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; John 20:1-9

What a wonderful coincidence that Easter and Passover are celebrated this weekend. Both festivals speak of freedom and liberation.

At every Seder meal one of the younger children at the table asks a traditional question, “Why will this year’s Seder be different from all others?” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, suggests this year Jews need the Seder ritual more than ever.

Jacobs wrote that Jews are feeling disheartened and divided from their faith, their people and their homeland. The Seder is not a time to run away from frightening questions surrounding the Middle East but rather engaging with these issues.

Here a young child in our assembly asks me a similar question. “Father! Why will this Easter Mass be different from all others?”

This is good question. On Passion Sunday I asked what are we afraid of most of all? Last night at the Easter Vigil we heard stories of fear and oppression and of deliverance and freedom. We celebrated the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, our shining light in the night. We welcomed two women into our faith community. Beth Bassinson and Jessica Burns gave witness to the way God works in their lives. This morning we too ponder again how does the mystery of God unfold in our lives and the lives of others?

The stories we tell at Mass are important to us just as the stories Jews tell are consequential to them. NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “Storytellers expand the consciousness, waken the sleeping self and give their hearers the words and motifs to use for themselves. Jews tell the story of the Exodus [to] each generation to understand the fears they feel at that moment.”

We Christians tell new testament stories along with old testament ones. They are similar. Jews remember the passover of their ancestors from slavery to freedom. We tell the story of Jesus as our passover who frees us and others from whatever fears we might have, even death.

Rabbi Jacobs recalled for his readers the dry matzah at the Seder reminds them of poverty and oppression; the bitter herbs awaken spiritual empathy for those who are suffering today. He said the ancient story of the Jewish people illuminates the social justice issues of today.

This past Holy Thursday, Betsy Rowe-Manning who pastors this faith community, said the last supper account is not included in the gospel of John. Betsy reminded us that the washing of feet is synonymous with sharing the eucharistic meal. The liturgy we celebrate in here is the same as our social action out there. The sacramental bread and wine on our holy table resonate with the sustenance we share with others in our food pantries, prisons, counseling centers and hospitals.

Why will this Easter liturgy be different from all others? A lot depends on you and me. It starts in here at this Easter liturgy, a rehearsal for what we do out there. When hope does not seem to be a good strategy for dealing with our fears, the virtue of faith can strengthen our resolve. Empathetic acts of charity can free up ourselves and others from whatever holds us back.

The word Easter, many believe, is derived from the Anglo Saxon name Oestre the mythological goddess of Spring and the sunrise. Today, we celebrate rising up from death. The Jews celebrate liberation from oppression. Both of these yearnings require more of us — a daily struggle to replace malice and fear with works of truth and sincerity.

Easter Vigil Homily – 4 April 2015 – Rise Up Anew!


Easter Vigil B – April 4, 2015

Many years ago while spending holy week with the Aymarán peoples in Chucuito, Peru I experienced worship in a very different way. The community processed in the mud to three modest churches on different levels of the village. The liturgy blended the Roman Catholic mass with rituals of praise and thanksgiving to Pachamama (the World Mother).

The Aymaráns have no word for God or religion. “Pacha” means living with the forces of nature and the universe. “Mama” is the one who gives life, protects and nourishes. “Pachamama” celebrates relationships in non-dualistic terms. In this ancient viewpoint of creation everything is one.

Tonight we celebrate a divine mystery — the presence of God in our lives. Illumined by the light of Christ we pondered creation through the eyes of the Hebrews. They thought of God as a being above and beyond nature. Peering through the Hubbell telescope, we see that the known universe is not fixed but ever expanding. God is in that mix like Pachamama; not removed from it or us.

In the scriptures tonight we were on a roller coaster ride from great hopes to shattered dreams; from slavery to liberation; from passivity to participation in events that engage us as partners and not spectators in the mystery of God. The texts embodied relationships between God and God’s creatures, Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the Israelites, Mary Magdalen and Jesus.

We heard that pivotal story about deliverance, how captive Israelites rushed to freedom from abusive rulers; how they gave witness to God’s gift in song, dance and deed. The Jews are remembering the same story this week at their Passover meals 

Scripture scholars remind us the great act of divine power was the deliverance itself [1] and the Exodus is “… a story about God’s activity in creating a new people from the victims of oppression.” [2] Storytelling, according to NY Times columnist David Brooks is another way to conquer fear. Stories create new ways of seeing, which lead to new ways of feeling and thinking. [3] Tonight offers those possibilities to us.

The traditions of the Aymarán people and the narratives in the Hebrew bible set the stage for our celebration. We see the fulfillment of the prophetic promises of liberation in the itinerant Jew name Jesus. He so challenged the status quo the political and religious leaders plotted to execute him.

However, the death of Jesus did not stop the work of God. The same Spirit that lifted the body of Jesus off the cross to a transfigured form continues to work in us if we agree to let that Spirit do so. The God who unleashed the wonder of creation and liberated the Israelites can set us free from whatever frightens and oppresses us. We believe baptism is a first response to God’s gift.

In our worship tonight we give thanks to God for the graces we have. Our liturgy is an act of witness before all the world, a testimony to others of what God has done for us. Betsy Rowe-Manning pointed out on Holy Thursday the washing of feet is synonymous with sharing the eucharistic meal. 

The liturgy we celebrate here is the same as our social action out there. The sacramental bread and wine on our holy table resonate with what we share with others in our food pantries, prisons, counseling centers and hospitals.

Jessica Burns and Meg Bassinson tonight give witness to how God acts in their lives. This Spirit God, an overwhelming wind, is moving in these women, stirring them to action. Both of them, seekers on a spiritual journey, are joining us in embracing this mystery of God.

God continues to unfold in each one of us and in all of creation. Here in this holy place, on this holy night, amidst the stars of heaven, we constitute a faith filled communion of “saints alive.” Tucked together under her shawl, the God of all creation, protects and nurses each of us, giving us courage and hope to rise up anew.

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1. Wright, J. Divine Providence in the Bible: Meeting the Living and True God. (NY: Paulist, 2009) 28

2. Hoppe L. New Light from Old Stories: The Hebrew Scriptures for Today’s World (NY: Paulist Press, 2005) 30-31

3.  Brooks, D. “On Conquering Fear” in The New York Times, April 3, 2015

Palm Sunday of the Passion of Jesus – 29 March 2015 – “What Are You Afraid Of?”


PALMS & PASSION B – 29 March 2015 – “What Are You Afraid Of?”

Mark 11:1-10; Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8,9,17-20,23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark’s Passion 14:1-15:47

What are you afraid of? I started thinking about this question after seeing the movie “Still Alice.” As you may know Alice was was a highly respected professor at Harvard who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. My mother had the late onset version. What am I afraid of? The possibility of losing my mind.

What are you afraid of? I have asked many people this question and the answers vary. Some are afraid that something awful could happen to their children or grandchildren. Others fear losing their job. While some do not fear death most are afraid of what happens while dying. And others are afraid of being punished for doing something they were told is wrong. Are we afraid of being abandoned, of being left alone?

We human beings are fraught with phobias. Although we can work to overcome many of them some of them are life altering. An immigrant without papers. A college co-ed being raped. A person of color profiled by police. We are surrounded by such fears each day yet we have a hard time talking about them or doing something to change them. Sometimes there is little we can do to change what we are afraid of.

We just heard this morning a terrifying story (the passion narrative of Jesus of Nazareth) that is full of irony. The very person who was to save the Jews, restore God’s creative process (Tikkun Olam), give hope to every one who is oppressed, is, himself, crucified for threatening the status quo. 

The story began with Jesus coming into Jerusalem. The hosannas that we read about and sang earlier are found in Psalm 118. I was surprised to learn in a recent scripture class that hosannas are not really cries of victory. The word hosanna is a supplication that in the Hebrew language literally means “save us!” One wonders if we should change our tune next Palm Sunday.

Upon his arrival in Jerusalem Jesus plans his rallies and starts to stir up the crowds. After supper he goes to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. The gospel of Mark, unlike the other versions, tells us that Jesus became deeply emotional in the garden. He was troubled and agitated. 

In the time that Jesus lived, men, especially those who were public figures, were not suppose to show emotion. Jesus of Nazareth was different. He was filled with fear, terrified of the death he was about to experience. The gospel said Jesus cried out to his father Abba to save him but there was no answer. There was nothing but divine silence. Did God actually forsake Jesus? Ever get that feeling yourself?

Scripture scholar Robin Whitaker comments that towards the end of the story there is a call to action. Jesus, angry and disappointed with his disciples who did not keep watch with him, says to them “get up, we have to go, we have to get out of here.” Is it possible that Jesus frantically wanted to escape and find refuge? How would the story end if he had? Would we be here in church if he had?

Often we resist admitting or talking about what we are afraid of. Whitaker suggests that in this world of ours, filled with so much terror, we are summoned to be in solidarity with those who are suffering and living in fear. The disciples failed miserably at this task and eventually left Jesus alone to suffer and die.

During this coming holy week you and I have an opportunity to ponder what frightens us. The liturgies this week offer us “calls to action” — to wash one another’s feet (on Holy Thursday) and to embrace the cross that symbolizes the injustices of the world (on Good Friday). We may not be able to eradicate all the fears that we and others have. We can try to name them, deal with them and help each other rebound and rise up in spite of them.

Homily – Fifth Sunday of Lent – 22 March 2015 – “Rebounding in Life”


5 Lent A – 22 March 2015 – Rebounding in Life

Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

March Madness, a phrase used to describe high school basketball tournaments as early as 1931, has put a full court press on millions of people who, last week, made their prophetic picks. Whatever you may or may not think of the game, which, like all organized sports, is fraught with many shortcomings, March Madness is still here.

Some of you know I like the game of basketball. I would like to tell you why. I have  learned to use the game as a metaphor for life. You shoot the ball and hope it goes through the hoop. If it does then you are successful. If it does not go in, you can rebound the ball and shoot again and again until it goes in. Games are won because of coaching, good defense against the opposition and the ability to score points.

Sports psychologists find many similarities between the games we play and the lives we lead. There are not too many games that you can play alone and with a team. Practicing alone you keep shooting until the ball goes in. With teammates the ball is passed around before the shot is taken. Teams who do not rebound their missed shots have to play strong defense to stop whatever and whomever prevents them from getting ahead. A secret to winning is practice, hard work and determination.

The purpose of the readings during Lent is to prepare us for the big game which is celebrated in the feast of Easter. The first readings in this season speak to us about salvation and point ahead to the coach who would show everyone on the team how to win. His name was Jesus from Nazareth.

In today’s passage from Ezekiel we heard about how bones, dried up on a battlefield, were restored to life. It was a reference to the Israelites who were emerging from years of losing seasons. God honored their contracts and stuck with the team that was put together at the beginning of the season.

The second readings throughout Lent speak about our participation on the team and what we have to do to win. There are references to baptism as the way to make the team and the spirit on the team that will propel us to victory. Like it was for coach Jesus, who always practiced what he preached, winning would not be easy. Baptism alone would not be a turning point in the game. More hard work would be required throughout the game. Life is not an easy game to play.

Today’s gospel, if we use our imaginations, draws up another game plan for us. It is a story featuring a player named Lazarus and his teammates, Martha and Mary. As the story goes Lazarus was not playing well, couldn’t score a basket and eventually would be taken out of the game. Coach Jesus was recruited to fix the situation, to help Lazarus get back up on his feet, to give him confidence in his game. Jesus also showed the team the importance of playing together. Life is a team sport.

Not only is Lazarus given a second chance by the coach his teammates are encouraged to get back out on the court. (Remember the disciples are watching all of this happen.) They have to show faith in the coach, trust in his experience and play the game according to plan. The coach was convincing in his pep talk. Jesus said, if you believe in me you will never lose!

Last week Betsy [1] gave us that wonderful homily about seeing beyond externals, to view the deeper dimensions of life. She spoke of the large scale sculptures of the phoenixes hanging in a New York City cathedral and how you had to take a closer look to see what they were really made of. I was thinking about what she said. The phoenix is a mythological bird that rises up from the ashes. Often shown with a halo it was a popular symbol of resurrected life in early Christianity.

A few weeks ago, when ashes were smeared on our foreheads, we remembered that we are mortal beings. Sometimes, no matter how much we practice, the ball just won’t go into the hoop. Rather than be discouraged and defeated we think of everything the coach taught us about the deeper dimensions of the game of life and how to rise up again like the phoenix, or Lazarus or Jesus himself.

Whichever team you picked to win the women’s or men’s tournaments remember — basketball is just a game. But it is one game that teaches us about shooting the ball with confidence, rebounding with determination and playing good defense with the will to win against all opposition on the courts of life.

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1. Betsy Rowe-Manning is the St. Vincent de Paul parish life director.

Homily – Lent 3A – 8 March 2015 – “Nursed With Living Water”


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3 Lent A – March 8, 2015 – Nursed With Living Water

Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42

On this Third Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2015,  there is an amazing coincidence. Last week Jews celebrated the Festival of Purim. It is a joyful event honoring Queen Esther who saved the Jews from annihilation by the evil Haman. Jews today continue to rejoice in the promises of peace.

Today we Christians remember Photina, [1] the bold woman who bumped into Jesus at the well. Although Jews and Samaritans were enemies their meeting also gives us a story of promise and peace.

March is Women’s History month, this week is National Catholic Sisters’ Week and today is International Women’s Day. What a coincidence! We celebrate the accomplishments of women of all ages. Yet, we mourn how they continually are physically and mentally raped of their dignity and still robbed of equal status in both religious and secular cultures. We honor the women who have sustained us in good times and in bad. We commit ourselves to acknowledge and affirm them.

In the first reading from Exodus we are reminded of how God herself nursed the thirsty and impatient people of Israel with life giving water although they had given up on divine help. It is the story of a tender, motherly God nurturing her relationship with her children.

The gospel also focuses on the role a woman plays in revealing the presence of God. Both Jesus and Photina were cautious at first. Eventually they traded secrets. Neither was judgmental. Although we know Photina struggled in her relationships with others maybe she thought this stranger might be different.

Jesus — on his way to death in Jerusalem — was thirsty. Photina gave him a drink. He in turn offered her life giving water. Drinking deeply of his message of peace and justice she would not thirst again. This was a negotiated truce between enemies, an exchange of human respect and hope between strangers.

All of these women, Queen Esther, Photina, women religious, and the women in our homes and nations around the world, teach us that the ways in which we respect one another are pivotal for human well being.

Here in our midst Meg Bassinson and Jessica Burns [2] have made spirited decisions in their lives. Meg and Jessica are showing us that relationships with God and with one another can grow within a caring faith community.

As members of the priesthood of Christ we constitute a sacrament of unity. Baptized in living waters, we foster boundary-less relationships like Jesus did. During liturgy, which rehearses us for doing good the rest of the week, no one should feel like a stranger.

Liturgical theologian Nathan Mitchell wrote that we often forget liturgy is always an act of hospitality and pastoral care, where we make room for one another. Ours is a God who opens up space for the stranger, the other. [3]

In his Lenten message Pope Francis said in the Eucharist “we become what we receive: the Body of Christ. In this Body there is no room for the indifference which so often seems to possess our hearts.” The next Bishop for San Diego Robert McElroy, an advocate of immigration reform, said last week, “It is important [for] the church be one of inclusion.”

Many of the problems in the world are caused not only by suspicion and hatred of those who are not like us but also a lack of respect and care for those who are like us. The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman offers another way. We who are nursed by God with living water are called to make space for others in our lives. Imagine such a world!

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1. The name of the woman is not mentioned in the biblical text. The Orthodox church knows her as Photina (Svetlana in Russian) “Equal to the Apostles.”

2. Jessica is a member of the elect. Meg is a candidate for full communion. Both will be welcomed into the Church at the Easter Vigil.

3.  Mitchell, Nathan. “The Amen Corner” in Worship 78, no. 2 (March 2004), 165-75


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