Friday, July 30, 2021

The Food of Life's Journey

Dear Friends,

One of the more powerful lines in today’s readings is found in the Letter to the Ephesians:

“Lay aside your former way of life and the old self which deteriorates through illusion and desire, and acquire a fresh, spiritual way of thinking.”

Read that call to change against the background of the first reading in which the Hebrews, trudging through their exodus experience, took along their old selves. That’s why we find them today grumbling about their lack of food, longing for the good old days. We can all take heart from the fact that God pays attention to grumblers – because God heard and acted, giving the people quail at night and manna in the morning. Food. But not what they wanted. Food, which they nonetheless tried to hoard, even though they were told to pick only what was sufficient for the day.

With their blinded hearts and limited tastes, the Hebrews could not quite grasp the big picture. They could not quite embrace a future that was given to them piecemeal, in a way that called for trust.

The people in today’s Gospel were plagued by similar problems of illusion and desire. They had eaten their fill of the bread that Jesus had given them, and they wanted more. Irked because Jesus recognized them for what they were, the people pushed Jesus with their trick questions and used today’s first reading to drive home their point.

But Jesus didn’t bite, if I may put it that way. Instead, he offered himself as the one who would truly satisfy their hunger.

To hoard, to stockpile, to let self-gratification be the horizon of life – these are easy things to do. But to acquire a fresh spiritual way of thinking is hard work. What do we suppose it means to acquire a fresh spiritual way of thinking?

Here are four examples, taken from Scripture, which are new ways of thinking in these still-pandemic times.

                My food is to do the will of the one who sent me: to heal, to teach, to plant, to help the poor and suffering. The fruit of what we do lies beyond us. We may never know what good we have done by our kind words and generous deeds.

                We must become food for others. That means being consumed, if only for a time. Becoming food for others may mean interrupting one’s plans, one’s charted course to serve others. We watched medical personnel and other people in the service industries do this in these critical times.

                We do not live on bread alone. Bread feeds our bodies for now. Justice and mercy feed the community day after day.

                Finally, in acquiring a fresh spiritual way of thinking, we need to believe that the Lord will give us the bread we need. What is the manna that each of us receives daily? A word of peace that calms us? Someone, something that gives us courage to take the next step? The example of someone who leads the way? The bread we need may be a phone call from a stranger – an invitation to serve the community in some way, an experience that refines us and adds clarity to our thinking.

Each Sunday until the end of August, Gospel passages will all be taken from John 6. They will give us insight into the Eucharist. But these verses are also about the fact that we are given food for the journey of life – food for our bodies, minds and hearts – food that nourishes the sacredness of our community. Food that lasts. Let hunger for this food be a daily part of our lives.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, July 23, 2021

Emerging from the Pandemic Together

Dear Friends,

Let’s pause in our exploration of the weekend liturgical readings to think once more about ways to emerge in a healthy spiritual way from the COVID pandemic. News outlets tell us that people are gathering for fun in large numbers wherever they can, consumer spending is up and regrettably, we also see people turning on one another in violence.

To go forward in ways that benefit our neighbor as well as our world and ourselves, we need to discover new aspects of God-in-our-midst, to listen to the voice of God beckoning us to create a new world. 

Spend time this week reading, re-reading, and thinking about the appearance of God to Elijah at Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19.11-12). God was not in the earthquake, nor in the strong wind nor in the fire. God was in the gentle breeze that touched Elijah as he stood at the mouth of his cave.

God is in the gentle wind that has touched us throughout the pandemic isolation. Whether that has been a time of reflection for us or not, today can be that time. What was God telling us, prompting us to reconsider during our isolation? People like Juliana of Norwich and the desert fathers chose isolation in order to think and grow and pray. People like Nelson Mandela used his 27-year prison term to become the man who would lead his people.

“Every situation can be used as a time of conversion and training for a different world which is possible,” Robert Ellsberg told his listeners on retreat last week.

One of the slogans that we hear today encourages us to get back to normal. But a healthy normal will not be a repetition of what was before the pandemic. We become better when we envision another alternative. Pope Francis has reminded us that, “We never come out of any crisis using the same mind set we had before the crisis.” So, what will it take to find a new normal?

Certainly, the work of our minds and hands, but also the work of our prayer and imagination – the reassessment of our values and the good of the community. It will take joining others who are likeminded and willing to work together, to cease grasping stuff and choosing less as more.

Jeff Bezos just came back safely from a few moments in space with his companions. Together, they were aboard the “New Shepherd.” Yes, we need new shepherds to lead us where we never thought we could go, humanly speaking. But we also need to spend time with our God-Shepherd who taught us to value the true, the lasting, the holy and the life-giving.

What is that for you? For me? What we become, whom we love and welcome into our world, has global consequences. We have seen that we do not overcome COVID-19 alone. We need one another. We have also seen how people have devised ways of sharing that have been innovative, community-building and encouraging. Standing before our cave, listening to God in the gentle breeze, what do we hear?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Reconciling a Hostile World

Dear Friends,

Let me tell you a story of unintentional but real hostility to bring home today’s readings. The story goes back to a retreat I was making at Mount Savior Monastery near Elmira, NY. The monks were sheep farmers, and this one evening I was sitting outside chapel before night prayer. Overhead I heard the unmistakable sound of a hot air balloon being lowered. Within minutes, a beautiful gold, cream and yellow balloon came into view. As always, I was thrilled at the gracefulness of it, but as I watched, the pilot of the balloon deliberately descended to skim over the heads of the sheep and lambs. I suppose the maneuver displayed the skill of the pilot and gave the passengers a thrill, but the sheep and lambs fled in terror, scattering family groups and befuddling their evening serenity. Sheep and lambs have been known to die of fright and as I watched, I hoped this would not be the case for these innocent animals.

The golden balloon was an agent of hostility for the sheep, quite unlike the shepherds who tend, protect and care for the flock.

I thought of this incident as I read this week’s readings, especially one line in Ephesians which says of Jesus that he is the peace between us, the one who breaks down the hostility which keeps us apart.

We are people who live with hostility in our civic society and in our church. We cannot talk effectively about women’s leadership in the church, other forms of gender hostility, hostility around birthing issues, racial and class hostility, people killing one another in the name of God. We can’t explore new avenues of living and acting in society without crashing into someone else’s viewpoint or judgments. The barrier of hostility seems firmly in place. Yet in his own flesh, the author of Ephesians says that Christ made peace and brought reconciliation to those who were far off and those who were very near.

Sometimes we are the flock threatened with being scattered by violence, to use Jeremiah’s imagery today. Sometimes we are the hostile agents. Still at other times we seem to be the hostile agents because we pursue life-altering, life-giving change in order that all might live with indignity, integrity and harmony. For all who live with hostility, let there be peace. 

How do we invoke Christ’s unique capacity to bring about reconciliation in our hostile world?

In the best of all possibilities, we seek to understand one another, reveal our fears, hopes and concerns. Face to face, let both sides come together who claim to know something about the truth – to hear and learn from one another, to understand one another’s sense of history, theology and experience. When such encounters are not possible, we resort to others to speak on our behalf. We give them courage to do so, and we do not cease to pursue an end to hostility. Faithfulness to Christ requires that we do so. 

When Christ died on the cross, the Gospel writers report, the curtain in the temple was ripped in two, top to bottom. Symbolically, that means that barriers to the Holy of Holies was removed, once and for all. No one was unwelcome, because Christ died for all.

As a people, let’s not restitch the barrier to the Holy of Holies or scatter the sheep. Let us encourage the powers that be in Church and society to refrain from the kind of dominance and dogmatism that refuses to see truth in other perspectives and in the lived faithfulness of people who raise seemingly hostile questions. Let the golden balloon blow away.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, July 9, 2021

Being Faithful to God's Call

Dear Friends,

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus sends out the Twelve, two by two, on their first missionary journey. They had freshly discovered Jesus, been chosen by him, and said “yes” to his call. Now they go off for a short time to do what Jesus did:

            to proclaim the good news

            to cast out demons

            to heal the sick.

Did the Twelve succeed? Did Jesus expect and require that they succeed? For that matter, did Jesus succeed in changing people’s hearts and transforming society? What is success in God’s terms?

Did the prophet Amos, in today’s first reading, succeed in his own mission? God sent him to preach in the north to the externally pious, the uncaring wealthy and the unscrupulously powerful. They turned a deaf ear to this unlettered man, a dresser of sycamore trees, whom God had chosen. Instead, they listened to Amaziah, who told them what they wanted to hear.

Looking at the span of their lives, Amos, Jesus and the Twelve could not lay claim to success. But they tried their best to be faithful to God’s call, to preach and practice compassion and justice. And they prayed that God would take their work to the next time and place. That, dear friends, was enough.

You and I are their spiritual descendants and are called upon to do the same.

Hold on, you might say. They were messengers and prophets. I am only a hearer, a follower. I am little, and in the grand scheme of things, I am unimportant.

We need to be careful with this way of thinking, though, because that’s precisely where God seems to look – throughout Scripture – among the least, the little and the obscure. We have already been marked, as the letter to the Ephesians tells us, with the seal of the Holy Spirit. God sends us out, two by two, with a variety of partners to our neighbors and friends, coworkers, fellow patients or diners. We are called to preach the true word, the kind word, the God-word.

There are demons we are called to cast out as well – attitudes that claim our culture: violence, prejudice, racism, exploitation, ruthless and unhealthy competition, apathy and self-hatred.

We heal, too, when we patch up a child’s scraped elbow, unlock a frozen mind or help lift grief and sadness from others.

All that the Twelve were called on to do, we are called to do in our own time together here in Rochester and beyond, knowing that it is in Jesus’ name and with his power that we speak and act.

So let’s travel light, do our best and believe that God seeks, not success as an outcome, but a firm conviction in our hearts that God will bring forth what is needed. 

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, July 2, 2021

Building a Better Future Together

Dear Friends, 

Happy Fourth! May you find time today to think about and find the special, enduring qualities in our common life!

We can describe the United States as a land of dreamers and workers. On this 245th birthday of our republic, let’s salute both, for both are needed to restore meaning and coherence to our nation. I say this because we are, in many ways, in need of dreaming new dreams and working with conviction and humor to exercise our morally and socially conscious lives anew. 

If we work only, we run the risk of becoming over-tired or cynical. If we dream only, we accomplish nothing and waste our gift of life. The two, taken together, create new ways of shaping our lives so that we stand over against naysayers who predict that our democracy will dissolve in the not-too distant future.

But our working and dreaming, making connections and creating patterns for a better life for all, have to face, address and overcome some awful/awesome challenges: domestic terrorism, racism, sexism, gun control and a missing self-control, drug addiction, climate issues.

“The American dream,” as Robert Bellah and associates wrote years ago in Habits of the Heart, “is often a very private dream of being a star, the uniquely successful and admirable one, who stands out from the crowd that ordinary folk who don’t know how. And since we have believed in that dream for a long time and worked very hard to make it come true,” they continue, “it is hard for us to give it up, even though it contradicts another dream we have – that of living in a society that would be really worth living in.” That society is one transformed with new emphasis on liberty and justice, with economic, medical and educational resources available for all its citizens. A Utopian dream? Perhaps, but it is, in fact, a dream that lives in every human heart…a dream we have yet to fulfill.

We find certain tensions alive among us as we celebrate this particular American birthday. In the midst of our tensions, believers in God ask, “How do we know whether we are indeed following the vision, the call of our God to live and let live fully?” The Scriptures say, “Where your treasure is, there also is your heart” (Matthew 6.21).

Where is our treasure as a nation? Where do we invest our resources? On education, our children, housing, health care, jobs? Do we lift-up the marginalized and the poor?

As the American public, people like you and me need to encourage government, business and all those places that stimulate the American outlook to take up new initiatives in social responsibility and economic democracy.

On this birthday of our country, we need to explore anew and rededicate ourselves to the vision of our God and work of our ancestors who took up the task of building the United States. Let us accept the challenge and not be awed by its enormity. Let us work together, laugh together, find time to play together. Let us embrace one another as human beings and set aside the differences in our makeup. As fellow dreamers and workers, may we work toward a 246th anniversary more whole and holy than we experience this year.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 25, 2021

Choosing Hope Over Fear

Dear Friends,  

The way preachers talk about a particular Gospel passage often depends on the translation from which it is taken. In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say to the people: Do not fear. Only believe. 

Another, older translation of the same verse has Jesus saying to the crowds: Fear is useless. What is needed is trust. 

Jesus was speaking to a distraught crowd gathered outside Jairus’ home. Inside, Jairus’ daughter has died. But Jesus was undaunted. Fear is useless, he said. What is needed is trust. 

Fearmongering is big business in our time. Fear runs through the pulse of America. Doom is impending – the end of democracy. No matter the candidate, the opposition will attempt to sow fear into the electorate. How well we see this in these times. The exhaustive reporting of disasters often lasts beyond the human capacity to absorb these accounts. Even the weather gets reported in ways that play on people’s fears. 

Fear is big business because fear sells in a way that trust doesn’t. Drama needs fear, but Jesus says, ”Fear is useless.” 

If fear is indeed useless, what is useful? The answer to this question is at one and the same time easy and hard. The answer? Hope and trust. If we pay enough attention, we see that we are surrounded by people whose actions symbolize hope not fear. 

COVID has complicated life for the poor. Hope has come through the various acts passed by Congress to help, allowing people to purchase food, housing, medical care, other needs. The recent acceptance of Juneteenth as a significant moment in our history has stirred hope in our Black brothers and sisters and in the rest of us as well. The heroes of COVID in hospitals, ambulances and nursing homes have shown to Americans again and again that fear is useless. What is needed is hope. 

Hope requites that we believe that the future can be different from the present and that we can help make the future new. This hope which urges us on is based on faith in God and faith in one another. The recent rash of violence in our land notwithstanding, there is more love and support available than we seem to see.  

And then there are the refugees streaming to our shores, especially across our southern border. We are not altogether welcoming of uninvited newcomers to our land. We fear they will take away from us what we are and want and need. Can we be bearers of hope for new immigrants? Can we say to them the words of Jesus to the crowd faced with the death of Jairus’ daughter: Fear is useless. What is needed is trust. I hope we can say this and live its truth. I hope we can hear Paul’s words in today’s second reading and take them to heart. Paul says: This is not relief for others and pressure for you. Rather, Paul says, “Let there be a fair balance between your abundance and their need.” 

Hope is the offspring of faith that inspires good. Hope is alive and well where people develop life-giving, life-sustaining relationships and solve life’s problems together. Will our vision be big enough to live and act this way? 

~Sister Joan Sobala 

Friday, June 18, 2021

Celebrating Fatherhood

Dear Friends,

While Father’s Day is not a liturgical feast, it is a time to bring together the fathers of our world with the Father of the Universe, the Creator Father, whom Jesus called “Abba”…Daddy. There is no life without fathers. Of course, there is no life without mothers, but that’s for another time and place to reflect on. Let’s focus on fathers and fatherhood.

Fathers, like mothers, are either revered because of their abiding love or cause pain because of their absence of mind, body or spirit. The best of fathers are good men, for whom fathering is a privilege and a daily pledge.

Relatives of one of our Sisters live in the Midwest. I’m told that this is how the family handled education at the height of the pandemic. As a family, they decided that they would set school time aside as special every day. Dad was to be the teacher. He would wear business clothes, including a tie. The children would wear their school uniforms. And mom, they decided with delight, would be the cafeteria lady. Such fun! Such working together! The dad of this family had probably never envisioned the daily pledge of fathering as including a stint as their classroom teacher. But dads do what they have to.

Family life is the cornerstone of society, the testing ground of the muscles of our minds, the place where our hearts can be broken or they can soar. Blown by the varied winds of the Holy Spirit or destroyed by destructive human hurricanes, family life is central to all life.

On Father’s Day, we salute family life as the hearth of God, ours for the making with God in the shaping. Worth the effort because the effort is not ours alone.

Before Jesus, no one in Scripture dared to call God Father. But Jesus named the God of his relationship Father/Abba/Daddy. Jesus not only used this enduring and endearing name for God, He passed on to us the invitation to do the same. Live with this thought about the Father that Jesus offers us in John 14.23, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

Today, why don’t we pray for all fathers – 

            that they may not grow weary,

            that their hearts and minds be absorbed by the wonder of fatherhood

            that they may turn to the Father of Jesus, our Father, for courage, sustenance                              and delight in their life with their children.

~Sister Joan Sobala