Friday, April 28, 2017

Taking Delight in God's Good Earth

Dear Friends,

Each year in April and May, avid gardeners prepare the land for planting, and when the moment is right, put in their annuals. Long before that, perennials are divided, shared, swapped and pinched off.

Those of us who like to have perennials in our gardens also know that certain perennials send out long adventuresome roots: bishop’s weed, lilies of the valley, jack- o-lanterns, to mention a few. They go under sidewalks and around corners and won’t stop. The only way to eliminate perennials that threaten to take over everything is to attack their roots system, to find “the mother” as it’s called.

The sneakiest thing about these tentacled plants is that they reappear when you think you have eliminated them. Roots have the power within them to shoot life to the surface. These roots intertwine with plants we want to preserve. The danger is in killing both.

So too in the spiritual life. The good we intend, the love, the care, the hopefulness, our sense of justice are often intertwined with less noble and sometimes downright destructive aspects of our personalities and habits. We need a kind of spiritual round-up -- you  know, ”round-up,” the topical spray which goes to the roots of what needs to be eliminated.

Then, too, I can’t help thinking about uprooted people…refugees and immigrants.

About one in every 35 people in the world is a refugee or international immigrant, forcibly uprooted because of persecution or war. The uprooted face closed borders, closed hearts and closed minds. Where will they be welcomed to put down their own roots?

It’s up to the world’s gardens to receive the special blossoms and fruits of the displaced. But it’s at a cost to us. We might be asked to make room, become hybrid and after all, is that so bad?

In his lessons in the Gospel, Jesus tells us that it’s important to stay connected to the vine, to let the tares grow with the wheat until harvest, to be pruned, to scatter seed lavishly. Every lesson we learn from the earth and its yield is a lesson of faith.

Years ago, a parishioner where I worked, and fellow gardener, brought me a five ounce paper cup with a seed growing in it. “I don’t recognize it, Mike.”  He beamed. “It’s a redwood tree.” What an act of faith! To plant a redwood seed, knowing this tree could grow and flourish for a thousand years or more! Mike taught me an important lesson, echoed by the poet Wendell Berry. “Plant sequoias,” Berry says. ”Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant. Practice resurrection.”

So as spring deepens into planting time and the earth warms, plant flowers and vegetables. Scatter seed. Take delight in God’s good earth. Remember those across the world who gave their life’s blood so that others might plant freely. Hold up your green thumb as if to say to God “OK Gardener God, let the growing begin.”

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Breath of Christ

Dear Friends,

Thomas wasn’t there on Easter Sunday night, when Jesus breathed on his disciples – a comforting, welcoming, power-instilling breath. You and I know the power of breath in CPR, for example, and how close one has to be to feel the breath of another. The Greek word that is used to describe Jesus breathing on his disciples appears here and nowhere else in the New Testament. But it’s the same word used three times in the Old Testament – at the creation of human life by God in Genesis, when Elisha, the prophet is described in Second Kings as breathing life into a dead man, in Ezekiel, where the breath of God puts new life into dead bones. That very breath is in us, making us a faith community, a new creation.

That Easter night, the Risen Jesus also gave his disciples the power of loosing and binding. Catholic theology recognizes in this passage about binding and loosing the roots of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And so it is. But we can say moreover that the whole Church is called to bind and loose people. We tend to think of our responsibility to bind and loose as minimal and that the task/the grace of binding and loosing properly belongs to priests and bishops.

But the Gospel does not allow us to give this commission away. It’s like this: You and I and people all over the world participate in human reconciliation with God. That reconciliation is at the heart of the Lenten season we just experienced. I know people who, during Lent, made phone calls, wrote letters and did whatever they could to foster reconciliation among people and reconciliation of people with God. We bind people to be faithful to their commitments, to their own integrity. Richard III of England took as his motto “Loyalty binds me.” We, too, are bound by our loyalties, our talents, our unity as a believing community. We are also told to free one another from the people, situations and cultural inducements that bind us destructively. I cannot be persuaded that the American cultural practice of Sunday morning sports leagues for children and teens, a.k.a. churchless Sunday mornings, is for the good of the faith of families or the participants themselves.

On this Second Sunday of Easter, all our readings remind us that we are called and commissioned together, and that being together for Sunday worship is not a luxury but a necessity for Christians.

At his home, one winter night, the famous 19th Century American evangelist DL Moody was listening to a guest defend himself in being separated from the faith community. “Frankly,” the guest told Moody, “I don’t see any problem about not being part of a church. I can be quite a good Christian out of the Church as well as within it.” In answer, Moody moved toward the fireplace, took up the tongs and removed a piece of wood that had been ignited. The two men watched the wood, separated from the fireplace, begin to falter, smolder and not long after, go out. The lesson brought the man back to church after that. He had learned that to separate oneself is to cease to burn.

The disciples accepted Thomas when he returned the following week, and the Risen Jesus gave him every opportunity Thomas said he needed to continue in faith.

We, too, have every opportunity to accept the breath of Christ into our being – to bind and loose in Christ’s name – intangible, real Easter gifts that can engender new life.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Sips of Easter


The Lord is risen, Alleluia! Happy Easter, dear friends.

Today, rather than one more or less coherent little essay, I offer you sips of Easter to savor through the day or week. The sips of Easter are from others who, in gazing upon the Risen Lord, were moved to words – people who throughout history have used every medium of communication to say “I have  savored, adored, discovered, was touched to the quick by Jesus the Risen Lord.”

~Keep watch then, brothers and sisters… for the morning of that day which has no sunset has already shone upon us. (Guerric of Igny  c. 1150)

~Let all then enter the joy of the Lord! Both the first and the last and those who come after… Rich and poor, dance with one another, sober and slothful, celebrate the day. Those who have kept the fast and those who have not, rejoice today for the table is richly spread… Let no one go away hungry. All of you, enjoy the banquet of faith… Christ is risen, and life is set free. (Easter Sermon of John  Chrysostom )

~From an anonymous correspondent who sent this to Bishop Joseph L. Hogan of Rochester who then made it famous by circulating it in the diocese: “Who rolled back the stone? You did, when you laughed, cried, shared, trusted me… When you let me help you, hold you… When you could have said no but said yes instead… when you listened, smiled, and let me keep my dignity… when confusion, loneliness, disappointments came crashing in and there you were...When you gently called me to prayer, to celebrate life, to sing, to dance, to risk, to love. Then the stone rolled away. When you said I care, I love you, I need you, I’m sorry, I forgive you…then the stone rolled away. New life, spring, warmth, life, freedom were born. The resurrection became Reality. (Bishop of Rochester 1969-1978)

~“It all began with the Resurrection… if he had only stayed put…” Dan Berrigan S.J. (1921-2016) How would you continue his poem?

~Cartoon: Which came first the bunny or the egg? Neither, they are both made of chocolate. Caveman walks away, trips, slides down a hill, hits his head on a tree. Groggily, he notices a sign with an arrow. The word on the sign is TOMB. Caveman finds the tomb, goes in, comes out scratching his head saying to himself “Life’s greatest discoveries seldom occur without pain.” (B.C. by Mastroianni and Hart)

~The Jesus of Easter is the Completer of unfinished people with unfinished work in unfinished times. (Lona Fowler)

~The Resurrection is not a crutch. It does not allow us to excuse the killing of an innocent teenager or the conduct of a war that seems not to be headed toward some just resolution. The Resurrection, rather, is the reason to hold on to our hope. (Mark Hare)

~May the God who shakes heaven and earth, whom death could not contain, who lives to disturb and heal us, bless you with power to go forth and proclaim the gospel. Amen (Janet  Morley)


~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, April 10, 2017

Celebrating Holy Week

Dear Friends,

Holy Week, among other things, is about resistance – the refusal to accept, be part of, grasp and take in whatever is set forth as necessary, irrefutable and absorbing.

Jesus was a resistor.

Hearing the crowd’s Hosanna, Jesus resisted the temptation to believe that the adulation of the crowd would last. Jesus resisted running away from suffering – yet in the garden, as he prayed, Jesus resisted suffering and the very comfort of knowing he was loved by his Father. Jesus resisted the night with its betrayal, the night of death and the bleakness of the tomb. He resisted bitterness as his disciples scattered and Peter denied any knowledge of Jesus. Jesus resisted the power of Rome and hostile religious authority that threatened to crush him.

Others involved in the event of these days marshaled resistance as well. Judas resisted the new, unexpected way that Jesus offered people salvation. He wanted Jesus to savior his way. Peter resisted Jesus who knelt to wash Peter’s feet. Later, Peter resisted his conscience and the loyalty Jesus inspired in him. The women in their vigil at the cross and at the tomb resisted the threat of the Roman military and the jibes of the crowd.

Resistance either comes from faith or it does not. When it does not come from faith, as we see in this week’s drama, it disappears into cowardice, shrinks from the inside and leaves failure in its trail. Such resistance obscures the likeness of God in the resistor and offers no spark to ignite the world.

But resistance that comes from faith leads to new life, a renewed confidence in God and Easter itself. Jesus’ cry on the cross shattered the last human resistance – death – forever. On Easter, the resistance of the stone, the inability of Jesus’ disciples to recognize him, and most of all, the resistance called fear gave way to lasting, indescribable joy.

In our world, this Holy Week and Easter, we find all these same resistances played out. Some US citizens resisting self-centeredness, yet others resisting truth. Worldwide, medical workers resist epidemics and at the same time regimes resist being overthrown. Signs of resistance are everywhere. It’s often hard to sort out their meaning. That’s why we need Easter, for when Christ Easters in us and in our world, we recognize the good to embrace and the evil to reject. Boundaries become permeable, resistance gives way to harmony, we become participants in a community working for the common good.

As Holy Week unfolds, I hope we can resist being bystanders only in an ancient drama, bystanders, who in their lack of concern for others, “leave no fingerprints on what their hands have touched.” (Charles Wright)

This week, do not resist Christ. Touch Him in his Passion, Death and Resurrection. Touch one another with the encouragement of faith. Touch the empty tomb. Touch the spring flowers that proclaim He is risen.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Meaning of the Cross

Dear Friends,

We have just experienced several weeks of federal officials at the national level passing the blame for the twists and turns of government. Passing the blame is a common human ancient trait, going back to Adam and Eve. For better than two thousand years, people have dealt with the death of Jesus on the cross by passing the blame. Pontius Pilate is responsible. No, the Scribes and the Pharisees are responsible. No, no. The whole Jewish people throughout history are responsible. And then the question turns on us: Are we responsible? Not me, you might say. I wasn’t there. But the focus on blame doesn’t get to the meaning of the cross. Blame is easy. Solidarity with Jesus on the cross is hard.

God in Jesus, the Word Incarnate, died on the cross, held close by His Father, just as every person is held close by God at the moment of death. God in Jesus came to save us from the destructive power of sin. In the Gospel Jesus does not ask us to imitate Him. Rather we are called to be in solidarity with Him in his life, death and resurrection. Put another way, to be a Christian is to share in the dying and rising of Christ. These are powerful thoughts – almost beyond our ability to grasp, but try we must.

Here’s an important point about the dying of Jesus that is found in the Gospel of John 19.30. It is the cry of Jesus just before he dies: “It is finished.” Far from being a whimper of defeat, tetelestai, the Greek word for what Jesus calls out, is the shout of victory of an athlete as he crosses the finish line. Jesus was not defeated by the cross. It was the instrument of victory over sin and ultimate death.

The earliest tradition of symbolizing Jesus on the cross has this sense of triumph. Christ was the victor. Christ passed from life to glory through his death on the cross. Then there was a turn, and for many centuries until recent times, the Jesus who was imaged on the cross called us to concentrate on his pain, his wounds, his blood. We contemplated Christ’s sufferings, and that was a good thing, but it didn’t help believers reach the realization that Jesus’ death was not the end. The cross was His way to glory and to restore our relationship with God. Many modern crucifixes have renewed the older imagery of Christ, on the cross, who stretches out his arms to draw us to himself.

Good Friday is less than two weeks away, the middle day of the Triduum between the Supper of the Lord and the Easter Vigil. The power and meaning of the cross can get lost in Holy Week when so much of our truth as believers comes to absorb us in such a short time. That’s why it’s good to start now to dive into the meaning of Christ’s gift of Himself and His new Risen Life among us.

Do you have a crucifix at home? Move it into a more prominent place where you can see it and call for its deepest meaning to flood through you. Mark your calendar for the Liturgy of Good Friday. While it is a laudable practice to participate in the Stations of the Cross, the stations are not the Liturgy of Good Friday. Find out its time and be there. Bring no agenda except to be in solidarity with Jesus in his time of victory over death and sin.

Behold! Behold!    The wood of the cross on which has hung our salvation.     O come let us adore!

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, March 24, 2017

Welcoming the Night

Dear Friends,

Unless we work the night shift, nighttime sleep is normal for us. Consider last night. Was it peaceful or restless? Full of sweet dreams or nightmares? Did your heart pound in the night with some real or imagined illness or did you wake refreshed? We either welcome the night or we put it off as long as we can. The night is our friend or our foe.

In the rich history of Scripture, the night is often spoken of as a time of holy encounters with God.

Jacob, for example, slept on a stone pillow in the Book of Genesis (28.10-28a) and as he slept, he saw angels moving up and down the ladder which reached from the ground to heaven. Then God came to Jacob, told him of his future and Jacob marveled: Truly God was in this place and I never knew it.

Some of the psalms invite us to regard the night as a holy time. “In the night, my inmost self instructs me. (Psalm 16.7) “You need not fear the terrors of the night (  Psalm 91.4). “By night may God’s song be on my lips (Psalm 42.8).

Nicodemus, a Pharisee came as a learner to Jesus by night and found in his encounter with Jesus the conviction that allowed him to join another Pharisee, Joseph of Arimethea in burying Jesus. At the end of the last supper, Jesus gave Judas a piece of bread, dipped in the dish. As soon as he took it, Judas left to betray Jesus. And it was night (John 13.30).

The night of Judas’ betrayal continued with the agony in the garden, the trial of Jesus, his imprisonment, and the denial of Peter. After the death and burial of Jesus, sometime before dawn on the third day, Jesus was raised up. By the time the women got there at dawn to anoint his body, Jesus was gone, the tomb was empty.

The new life of the Risen Lord of history began in the night in the garden. To borrow from Jacob so many centuries before. Truly, God was in this place, and we never knew it .

As the calendar hurries toward Holy Week and Easter, let the possibility of the holiness of the night become real for us. Let the night be a time to ask questions of Jesus as Nicodemus did. Let us welcome the night as a prelude to new life and welcome the day as the time to see what the night has revealed about God, about us. One night in particular calls us to celebrate it as holy: the Easter Vigil on Saturday, April 15 – the nighttime feast of Easter, when all creation, all of salvation history, newcomers to faith, the tried and steadfast, come to greet the Holy One who transforms the night. Don’t be put off by the length of the Easter Vigil. Give yourself over to it. Immerse yourself in it as one is immersed in the waters of Baptism. Plan ahead to be there.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Water of Life

Dear Friends,

Social scientists and geo-political analysts say that if there is to be a World War III, it will be fought over water.

Water is essential for life. Mindful of Lake Ontario to our north, and the Finger Lakes majestically spread out across our state, it’s hard to believe that water is also scarce.

The first and third readings for the third Sunday of Lent tell us that God is a water giver. God gives water to the grumbling Israelites through the staff of Moses and God gives it to the Samaritan woman through Jesus. “Whoever gives this water I shall give will never thirst. The water I shall give will become in you a spring of water gushing up for eternal life (John 4.14).” With this water that Jesus gives, our potential for growth and life is beyond our imaginings.

But it is not enough to take what the water-giver offers. We need to become the water-giver, Put on Christ. Become Christ and welcome the Samaritan woman who lives in our day.

Once, when I was working as a pastoral administrator in a rural area, I went to the home of a woman who wanted to have her child baptized. Pam’s home was in a rutted country lane in a rundown mobile home. The smell of ten cats assailed me as I walked in. In a cage across the small living room was a weasel. A half hour after we began our conversation, my eyes drifted to the cage. The weasel was out and about. I had to really concentrate on listening to Pam.

Besides baby Damian, there were three older children…by three different fathers, none of whom were married to Pam. Pam and Damian’s father were married. He was an epileptic. They were very poor.

Four children…four fathers. Today’s Samaritan woman. She wanted the water of life for her child, as she had for her older children.

Maybe we don’t know a Pam – but who is it that we are tempted to ignore because of the accidents of their birth or their lifestyle? Whom do we refuse a drink from our own precious well because they are strangers and we might not have enough? Whose life is diminished by our antagonism or worse, our indifference?

Jesus, sitting at the well at noonday risked rejection by the Samaritan woman. She could have turned her back on him, but they were open to each other and the water of life flowed between them.

Does the water of life flow between us when we meet strangers whose life-stories bear the scars of domestic warfare, crippling illness or more?

Give me a drink, Jesus says to the woman. Give me a drink the stranger says to us. Be ready to share the water of life. Let it flow.

~ Sister Joan Sobala