Gospel Reflection for Sunday, March 26, 2017: John 9: 1-41
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
There were a couple games that my sister, Vicki, and I played with neighborhood friends when we were little that drove my mother crazy. One was “Charlie’s Angels,” where we took on the roles of Sabrina, Jill, Kelly, Kris – even Bosley. We marched around the backyard pretending to solve crimes and apprehend evil-doers while being stunningly beautiful and maintaining shiny, bouncy hair. Mom was not a fan; she worried that it would make us want to shoot people when we got older.
The other was a game we thought was hysterically funny but our parents failed to appreciate – “Opposite Day.” Vicki and I would say all sorts of wild untruths to each other and crack up at what we thought was evidence of our superior intellect. I would bet money that you played it too and loved it as a kid . . . only to despise it as an adult when you had kids of your own who thought they invented the game and threw themselves into it with gusto.
But Mom and Dad were not fans of the game like Vicki and I were. “I hate you,” I told my mother, and just as her face began to wither, I’d shout, “Remember, Mom, it’s Opposite Day!” Charlie’s Angel or not, she looked ready to shoot me herself.
“Vicki fell off the jungle gym, and her leg looks funny,” I said to my dad and followed it with a quick, “Ha, ha, it’s Opposite Day! She’s really just taking a nap in her room!” Getting shot might have been preferable to my dad’s actual response.
Call me crazy, but I think Jesus might have liked “Opposite Day.” I feel certain he wouldn’t have been as horrible about its implementation as I was, but I think in the gospels he demonstrates a real affinity for paradox and apparent contradiction. For instance, last Sunday we heard Jesus ask the Samaritan woman for a drink of water. "’How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink? For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans” (John 4: 7-9). Jesus was a master of turning the conventional wisdom of the time directly on its head. Opposite Day, if you will.
Then this coming Sunday, his disciples will ask him if the condition of the man born blind that they encounter is a result of his sin or of his parents’ sin. Once again, Jesus pulls an “Opposite Day,” so to speak, and says “Neither,” which would have made no logical sense to a first century Jew (John 9: 2-3).
The older I get and the more I try to truly get to know the person of Jesus, the more I think that he is the master of paradox. When the logical response to a personal attack is retaliation, he says, “Turn the other cheek.” When we have been deeply hurt and the reasonable approach is to cut off ties to the person who hurt us, he says, “Forgive 7 times 70 times.” When we are asked for a handout and the most prudent response is to focus our resources on providing for ourselves and our family, he says, “Don’t just give him your shirt; give him your coat too.” When it seems to us that suffering and grief and poverty are the worst possible outcomes, he says, “You hit the jackpot; blessed are you!”
No two ways about it – Jesus’ message is confusing and frustrating and just plain mind-blowing. Unless... you start to see the wisdom in paradox and the power of contradiction. If only we could hold two opposites within us – black/white, Democrat/Republican, rich/poor, success/failure – maybe then we might understand something about ultimate meaning. Maybe then we might be able to glimpse something about the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe “Opposite Day,” in the hands of more capable practitioners than my sister and me, is truly a gift.
Gospel Reflection for Sunday, March 12, 2017: John 4: 5-42
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
Call me crazy, but I still watch Friends, the now classic sitcom that had an amazing 10-year run and was pretty much the soundtrack to the decade of the 90’s for me. Of course, it’s hard NOT to watch it since it’s airs in syndication on more cable channels than I can count. But although I’m sure I’ve seen every episode at least three times in random sequence, lately I’ve been watching it on Netflix from the very beginning in chronological order. Granted, I know there’s nothing realistic – or maybe even all that healthy – about a group of six friends who spend most every waking moment together. But there’s just something comforting about being drawn into a fictional world where even the most difficult life situations have their laugh-out-loud funny sides to them and Ross and Rachel eventually end up together.
During one episode in the first season, Rachel questions her recent choice to leave her successful orthodontist fiancé at the altar. Sure, she didn’t love him, but she realizes that he would have been a safe choice. She would have had a clear path laid out before her, complete with the possibility of children, a big house in the suburbs, health insurance, and spending money, not the anxiety that comes from making one’s own way all alone. Her friend, Phoebe, tries to cheer her up by saying that she is like Jack, from Jack and the Beanstalk fame. Just as Rachel gave up her ticket to the good life, Jack gave up his family’s only source of income, a dairy cow. Instead of selling the cow for cash as his mother instructed, Jack exchanges it for magic beans. Of course, we know the end to the fairy tale; the beanstalk that grows from those magic beans leads Jack to endless treasure. But Rachel doubts that it will work out that way for her. She asks Phoebe and Monica, “Okay, see, see, you guys, what if we don't get magic beans? I mean, what if all we've got are… beans?”
The gospel story we’ll hear this Sunday describes Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up a tall mountain and becoming transfigured right before their very eyes: “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him” (Matthew 17:2-3). Peter is overjoyed and wants to capture the joy of that revelation. He offers to build three tents, one for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, so they can all stay there and live happily ever after. I think it’s his effort to bottle the experience, to capture that amazing revelation - that glimpse of the divine – so that he can have it always. Put another way, he simply doesn’t want regular ol’ beans. Only magic beans will do.
But Jesus has none of it. Instead, he leads them back down the mountain, back down to their regular, ordinary, painful, confusing, anxiety-provoking lives. And he tells his friends not to even speak about what happened! But why? Why not let them set up camp where life is beautiful and pain free and “shining like the sun?” Why insist on getting back to the boredom and confusion and struggle of daily life?
Perhaps his point is that regular ol’ beans are actually magic beans after all! Maybe regular ol’ life is where the divine is present every moment of every day. It might sound crazy or illogical, but if we stop and really think about it, it makes a certain kind of sense. After all, isn’t the very core of Christian faith the contention that how things seem to be isn’t at all how they truly are? That a tiny little baby born to a poor, unmarried couple holds the key to eternal life? That life actually comes from death? That love and compassion win out over power and greed? Perhaps this Lent can be a time of “transfiguration” for each of us if we can understand that regular ol’ beans are magic beans after all.
Gospel Reflection for Sunday, February 26, 2017: Matthew 4: 1-11
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
Remember that old joke? In the words of Wolfgang Riebe, “There are only two things to worry about: either you are healthy or you are sick. If you are healthy, then there is nothing to worry about. But if you are sick there are only two things to worry about: either you will get well or you will die. If you get well, then there is nothing to worry about. But if you die there are only two things to worry about: either you will go to heaven or to hell. If you go to heaven, then there is nothing to worry about. And if you to go hell, you'll be so darn busy shaking hands with your friends, you won't have time to worry.”
Ah, if only it were that simple. Every year the American Psychological Association reports on how stressed out we are, and the news isn’t good. Adult Americans’ stress rating in 2015 was 5.1 on a 10-point scale, up from 4.9 the year before. And perhaps even more alarming, a full 24% of adults reporting being “highly stressed,” up from 18% the previous year. The 2016 results reveal that in addition to the usual suspects we blame for our stress - money, work, family issues, and relationships – we are also now increasingly stressed out about politics and government.
Against that backdrop, Jesus’ message in last Sunday’s gospel reading - about how we should learn from the birds of the sky and the grass of the field who do not worry about even the tiniest thing - seems almost tone deaf to our modern ears. In fact, it’s tempting to think that Jesus might have had a different view of things if he had an unreasonable boss who always stole the credit for his achievements or mortgage and tuition payments due at the same time. Jesus told us in last week’s gospel not to “worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” But it’s easy to wonder if he would have said that if he had a brother in rehab and a parent in a nursing home and no way to pay for either one.
I’ve often thought that we Christians have a grammar problem when it comes to Jesus. We believe IN him; we just don’t believe him. That little preposition “in” is the easy part. We have very little problem with faith when we see it as a matter of just signing up to be on Team Jesus. Sure, I’ll go to church, and I’ll try to be kind, and people will see that I’m a Christian. No heavy lifting. But to actually believe what Jesus said - not just “IN” him - and to live our lives based on the truth of those words is quite another matter.
In this Sunday’s gospel reading, we’ll hear the classic story about Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the desert. We’ll hear the devil offer him a life without worry, a life of privilege, power, and everything a person could want. I have to admit - if someone offered me a life completely free of worry over money and work and relationships and death, I’d be tempted too.
But that’s just it. We HAVE been offered that life. We are offered that life every moment of every day. We just think it’s too good to be true, so we assume it’s not. We believe IN Jesus, but we don’t always take him at his word.
I think the greatest temptation – perhaps the greatest addiction – of our current age is worry. The very act of worrying, of being stressed out, demonstrates some unpleasant truths about many of us: that we think we have unilateral control over our lives and need to have everything worked out; that if we fail, we are unlovable or diminished in value; that if horrible things happen to us, we won’t be able to survive them; that death is the end of the story. But not so. The word we have for actually taking Jesus at his word, for truly believing that “tomorrow will take care of itself,” is “resurrection.”
So maybe there are really only two things to worry about: either life goes the way you want or it doesn’t. If all goes well, you have nothing to worry about. But if it doesn’t, you have two things to worry about. Either you will recover or you won’t. If you recover, you have nothing to worry about. But if you don’t? Actually, if we truly take Jesus at his word, this isn’t even a possibility. The promise of the resurrection isn’t that we won’t suffer but that our suffering is not the end of the story. If I truly believe that, then there’s not much to worry about, is there? My intention during the Lenten season that begins for us next week is not just to believe IN Jesus, but to truly believe in the message he shared with us and to live more fully out of that truth.
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
I learned the difference between “good food” and “fine dining” in my early twenties. As a teenager, I thought the two terms meant roughly the same thing, a mere twist of semantics. By 28 I knew better. Much better. Thanks to frequent dinners out over the years with a close friend who knew what kind of culinary masterpieces awaited us if we were just willing to spend a little more and devote at least two hours to one meal without rushing, I became something of a “foodie” long before the word was in vogue. Some people spend their twenties traveling abroad, beginning a career, paying on student loans, and falling in love. And, come to think of it, I did each of those things too. But I also spent a good deal of time with my dear friend ordering the lobster bisque followed by the watercress salad with asparagus and beets as a prelude to a succulent beef Wellington accompanied by fennel and green beans seasoned with orange and almonds that eventually gave way to a glorious crème brulee finish.
But then I got a big job, a medium-sized mortgage, and a small baby. In other words, good bye expensive pecan encrusted tilapia drizzled with a molasses demi-glaze; hello cheap chicken nuggets with unknown ingredients and unpronounceable preservatives.
Sure, part of the appeal of fine dining for me was the elegant, relaxing atmosphere, the quality conversation, the unhurried sense of being truly present for perhaps the only time that week or month – with my guest, with the topic of our conversation, with the food.
And oh, the food. My friend taught me one of the secrets to amazing culinary delights. “La sauce est tout,” my friend would say in the French he knew from living and studying in Belgium for several years. The sauce is everything. And boy, was he right. Even today, if you were to put a very light, properly blended, hollandaise sauce on a cardboard box, I’d devour it like it was filet mignon or oysters Rockefeller, only better. And I’d ask for seconds.
I doubt Jesus was much of a “foodie” in his time, but he seems to know a thing or two about “special sauce.” In last week’s gospel, he told us that we are the salt of the Earth and the light of the world. In other words, there is something so precious, so remarkable within each of us that just by being true to it, we are able to flavor and enlighten others around us.
But just what is it that makes us like “salt” and “light?” This Sunday Jesus will give us some important clues. He will tell us that the law says not to kill or commit adultery or take a false oath, but just following the law doesn’t cut it. The religious leaders of his time spent countless hours about the “right” way to make a sacrifice, divorce a spouse, avoid “unclean” foods, and honor the Sabbath. And no wonder, since the Hebrew scriptures are filled with detailed prescriptions about dietary and purification codes. In Jesus’ day, a good Jew was judged by whether or not he followed these laws. But Jesus has a whole different view. He says that the law is fine and dandy and he didn’t come to get rid of it, but by itself it isn’t terribly useful. Instead, it’s what’s deep down in our hearts that really counts. In other words, outward compliance isn’t enough; inward transformation is what it’s all about. Put another way, I think he’s telling us that following the rules may be the two all-beef patties of our faith life . . . but something more, something deeper is the “special sauce.”
I think Jesus is trying to teach us to look beyond legal directives to find that special something within us – that place touched by the divine in our deepest being - that makes us salt for the Earth and light for the world. Rules and regulations can all have a place in helping us find that truth, but they are only a starting place, not the final destination. As the saying goes, the finger that points to the moon is not the moon. “La sauce est tout.”
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
Before I returned to Assumption as campus minister, I was employed as the manager of a training department for a large company. I had spent my entire career to that point working in a school or nonprofit organization, so my foray into the corporate world was quite an education. Business cycles, market share, balance sheets, supply chains . . . oh my! One particular training I found to be especially eye-opening was on the topic of Lean/Six Sigma, a methodology used originally in manufacturing that seeks to improve performance by reducing waste.
During one activity, our large group was divided into teams of eight and taught how to make a standard paper airplane. Each of us was to complete one of the steps and then pass it to the next person in our makeshift assembly line. The first time through, we used a “push” model of production where each person completed his/her assigned step as quickly as possible and passed it on immediately. This worked . . . but not perfectly. Since some people completed their steps faster than others, some sat idle while waiting for the next airplane and got bored. Similarly, steps that took longer resulted not only in accumulating inventories, but also in mounting stress on the part of the people with the more time-consuming steps.
After finishing that activity, we were asked to do the same thing, but this time using a “pull” model. In this method, one airplane at a time is “pulled” through the process in its entirety which left no backed-up inventory between steps. This method resulted in a faster cycle time, higher product quality, and workers who were less stressed. A “pull” method may not be the best approach in every circumstance though; for instance, marketing is a very different animal than manufacturing, so it’s true that what’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander. But in this situation at least, the “pull” method was clearly the way to go.
In the gospel readings last week and this coming Sunday, we see Jesus doing his own training on the value of the “pull” over “push!” But this time, it’s not as a recommended work strategy; it’s an approach to a life of faith. Last Sunday, we heard Jesus call out to Peter, Andrew, James, and John as a way to “pull” them into a new way of life. "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). What’s most powerful about this story for me is that Jesus actually explains how to respond to that “pull.” He teaches them – and us – that being pulled into the fullness of a life of faith means that we need to "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17).
Personally, I think the word “repent” has gotten a bad rap. It has some negative, dark connotations related to sin and evil and is often characterized as something we do when we’ve screwed everything up and believe a vengeful God is waiting to pounce. But that’s not really what it means. In terms of its etymology, the meaning of the root word is more like “to change one’s mind.” To me, it’s less about the gnashing of teeth over my unworthiness and far more about seeing clearly, seeing differently.
The truly amazing thing about Jesus here is that after “pulling” some of his disciples into the fold last Sunday, we’ll see him actually teach them what it means to “change one’s mind” and see differently. In this week’s gospel, Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount. He’ll tell us that being “pulled” into a meaningful faith means that instead of striving to be winners, we need to embrace the losers and our own losses. Instead of amassing our own inventories of wealth and privilege and power, we need to squander them on those who don’t necessarily deserve it. Instead of working to secure our own spot at the front of the line, we need to head for the rear and accept everything that accompanies last place. In short, we need to change our minds – about what is important, who is worthy, and how to be a person of faith.
To me, this is exceptionally Good News! Instead of “pushing” myself to get everything right and come out on top, all I really need to do is let myself be “pulled” by Jesus’ radical vision of the “good life.” Lent is only five weeks away. My goal this Lent is to stop pushing and abandon the false inventories of security and righteousness I’ve built up around me. I hope to do a better job of giving in to the divine “pull.”
Gospel Reflection for Sunday, January 15, 2017
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
When my son was a baby, my husband and I were never able to lay him in his crib while still awake for him to go to sleep on his own. He would scream bloody murder whenever we tried, and despite our plans to the contrary and the voluminous amount advice we were given, we were never able to listen to him scream it out until he would fall sleep on his own. That’s right, he had us wrapped around his little finger. But although I often wished our nighttime ritual didn’t take quite as long every night, I have to admit that I loved holding and rocking my baby until he gave in to sleep and rested sweetly in my arms. Now that he is a teenager, I cherish those memories now more than ever.
I recall one time in particular when I rocked him to sleep, but every time I got up to lay him in his crib, he would wake up and make his disapproval well known. This one night in particular, after several failed attempts to put him down, I ended up holding my sleeping baby against me in the rocking chair for a long, long time. Afraid to get up with him and fail again, I had my husband gently lift him off my chest to put him in his crib. I remember the sensation of him being taken from me like it happened just now; it felt to me like I had been stripped of the top layer of my flesh. In the rocking and the cooing and the little prayers I would say over and over to lull him to sleep, he had become part of me again, and to let go of him at that moment felt like a sort of death. My husband successfully got him into his crib without waking up that time, but my arms ached to have my baby back within them until sleep finally overtook me too.
The Gospel reading last Sunday and again this coming Sunday are classic tales. The stories of the Magi presenting the infant Jesus with their gifts and of John the Baptist identifying the adult Jesus as “the one” have been retold and enacted countless times over the centuries because of both their narrative and spiritual power. But the thing that intrigues me the most about both of these readings is one word that shows up in them three times: “behold.”
Last Sunday, we heard the Gospel writer say, “Behold, magi from the east arrived…” and then later, “Behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them.” Then this Sunday, when Jesus appears, we’ll hear John the Baptist say, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The word “behold” actually shows up 1,298 times in the Bible and is used from the very first chapter of Genesis all the way through Revelation. It’s a word that has gradually gone out of common use in English over the past couple centuries, but it’s a word I adore. In my mind, “to behold” means more than just to see; it means to see something so truly and clearly that it becomes part of you, that you actually “hold” it as part of your own being. And to have that thing taken from you is something like having the top layer of your flesh stripped away.
The Gospel readings of late have asked us to “behold” not just the magi and the eastern star, which are merely pointers to ultimate truth, but to the very ultimate truth itself: divinity within humanity. I have been asking myself this week - what would it be like if I didn’t just “see” that truth or give it lip service but really “hold” that truth in the depths my soul? What if this truth were so important, so precious to me that letting go of it would feel like being stripped of the top layer of my flesh? And what would the world be like today if every person of faith did the same? That’s a world I want to be part of, one I think we’re all called to help create. A resolution for me this new year is to truly “behold” the gift of faith. Won’t you join me?
Gospel Reflection for Sunday, December 18, 2016: Matthew 11: 8, 11
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
I have no spatial intelligence. I can’t read maps, I get lost going to places I’ve been numerous times, and unless I can actually see the Ohio River from where I’m standing, I can’t tell you which way is north or south. Without fail, I always turn the wrong way when exiting a public restroom. For some reason, I picture myself on the other side of the hall than I really am and miscalculate my next steps nearly 100% of the time. I’d like to think that my darn good verbal skills make up for my lack of spatial competence. But when you have to rely on a GPS to make it out of the subdivision without backtracking, it’s not hard to be humble.
But all is not lost! (Pun intended.) I have come up with a strategy for figuring out which way to turn when I’m behind the wheel at an intersection and global-positioning technology is unavailable. Amazingly, my three-step process works approximately 85% of the time. First, I visually scan the intersection paying close attention to street names, block numbers, and landmarks. Next, I process all that visual data, compare it with my memories of previous trips through said intersection, and then decide on which way I think I should turn. Finally, I turn in the opposite direction. Who needs maps when such a counter-intuitive system works so well?
Our Gospel readings last Sunday and this coming Sunday seem to be about turning the “opposite direction.” Last week, we heard Jesus talk with his followers about John the Baptist. He asked them, “What did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing?” Certainly not. One of the few things we know about John the Baptist is that his clothing was made of camel’s hair, and he subsisted on a diet of locusts. Clearly, he would not have made GQ’s Most Influential Itinerant Preacher list. But Jesus goes on to confuse matters even more saying that, “There has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11: 8, 11). Anyone who heard Jesus that day had to feel as lost I do driving to a new place. Least? Greatest? Huh?
Then this Sunday we’ll hear the story about Joseph learning that Mary was pregnant and planning to secretly divorce her, which would have been a rational, compassionate course of action. But then the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream to explain that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit and that he should allow Mary into his life and home (Matthew 1: 18-24). I can’t begin to imagine how Joseph would have felt at that time. Surely, feeling “lost” would have had to be at least part of it.
For me, Christmas is a celebration of the “opposite direction.” The experience of God in human history in the person of Jesus shows us how everything is “backwards,” but in a beautiful way. Yes, John the Baptist is not who we’d expect to announce great news, but there he is in all his locust-eating, camel-haired ickiness being identified as “none greater” by Jesus. And yes, a tiny baby born out of wedlock to no one of social significance in a damp, manure-infested barn is not who we’d expect to be the Prince of Peace, but there we go again.
People who celebrate Christmas are people who recognize the wisdom of going in the “opposite direction.” We are the folks who don’t always know which way to turn at life’s intersections, so we decide on the logical path . . . .and choose to go the other way. Instead of getting revenge on someone who has hurt us deeply, we try to forgive. Instead of being generous to only the people we love, we try to give to those who are ungrateful. Instead of giving the unkind and unthinking in our lives a dose of their own medicine, we try to be compassionate. We are a people of u-turns. But in this case, the “wrong” turns may be the right way. Perhaps it is in being lost, in going the “opposite direction,” that we actually find our path forward.
Gospel Reflection for Sunday, December 4, 2016: Matthew 24: 40, 41
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
As long as I live, I don’t think I will ever forget this one particular guy I met my freshman year in college. Let’s call him Jason. Although not very tall, he was ruggedly handsome and well built. More than a few girls on campus were captivated by his bulging muscles, northern accent, and baseball scholarship. I too thought he was pretty easy on the eyes at first and wouldn’t have minded being on the other end of his attentions, but in a short time, I learned that Jason had quite a reputation. It became common knowledge that Jason was a first class “player,” and not just on the baseball diamond. He was known for chasing anything in a skirt and went through girls faster than I went through Oreos after a break-up. He was big on heartfelt promises but small on consistency and follow through. It didn’t take long before Jason’s appeal was completely lost on me.
I’m not proud to admit it, but the truth is that eventually I thought very little of him. I didn’t know him well, mind you; I mainly just knew of his reputation. But I had decided that he wasn’t worthy of my time or attention. I remember complaining to a friend of mine that God shouldn’t have wasted those bulging biceps on someone like him. I mean, wasn’t there some scrawny yet upright and morally superior guy out there who could have used them? I thought Jason was a waste of perfectly good muscle mass.
Until that one day in biology lab. We had a biology lecture two days a week and a one-hour lab on Fridays. I remember us standing at our lab tables listening to instructions from our professor when I noticed a girl I didn’t recognize walk past me from her lab station, presumably to leave the room. Although I knew most of the students around my age at my small college, I didn’t recall ever seeing her before. I noticed that she seemed a little unsteady as she passed me, like maybe she was feeling unwell and was heading outside for some air or maybe to the restroom. Only five or ten seconds after she walked past me, I heard a loud whack... and then a horrible-sounding, barely audible wail. I turned to see that the girl had fainted, her head having struck the corner of a lab table on her way down. She laid on the cold tile, twisted and semi-conscious, with blood oozing from her head onto the floor.
I froze. I don’t know how else to explain it except to say that I was struck completely dumb with terror. This poor girl laid on a hard, tile floor not ten feet from where I stood, and I could not move even one muscle to try to help her. I simply stood there.
And then I saw Jason. Unlike me, his lab station was far from hers, well across the room. But I saw him leap over a lab table and run to her in the blink of an eye. He knelt down on the floor beside her, and I heard him say softly, “It’s okay... you’re going to be okay... we’re getting help.” He wiped some blood from her right eye with one of his bare hands; with the other, he stroked her shoulder to help her remain calm. “It’s going to be fine,” he kept repeating. “You are going to be fine.” At one point he asked her what her name was, which surprised me. I guess I had assumed that she was one of the many girls already in his acquaintance, but apparently, she was as unknown to him as she was to me. After that, he called her by name and said, “It’s all okay. I promise.” He continued to do that until she was calm and the EMS had her safely on her way to the hospital.
Jason was right. After several stitches, some pain medicine, and hours of observation in the ER, she was good as new. But I wasn’t. I truly hated myself at that moment in my life... for freezing in fear, for failing to help someone in need, and of course, for judging Jason so harshly. Clearly, I had gotten everything backwards.
The Gospel readings both last Sunday and this coming Sunday deal with waiting for an apocalyptic end of time, a cataclysmic reckoning. A concept rather foreign to us in our 21st century world, it was no stranger to the Jewish people of Jesus’ time. After all, their people had been under attack for centuries. The Jews had suffered captivity under the numerous conquering peoples, from Egyptians to Assyrians to Romans. Never in power, always fighting slavery and oppression, the Jews logically sought salvation from their social and political bondage. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the language of the Jews in Jesus’ time deals with end times, with deliverance.
Last week’s Gospel message has Jesus saying that when the Son of Man comes, “one will be taken, and one will be left” (Mt. 24:40, 41). Some apocryphal words indeed! And then this Sunday, Jesus will tell all those who will listen that even if they are blood descendants of Abraham, they could still be on the wrong side of the judgment. The Son of Man will “clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:12). For sure, the Bible has a thousand vivid images for judgment and separation – the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, the good people from the bad.
On one level, there are lots of scary words about judgment and being on the not-so-good side of God’s verdict. But if you get to know the God of Jesus, you start to realize that he doesn’t really go in for violent retribution or merciless punishment of even the guilty. Quite the contrary. Honestly, I think Jesus was using the language of his time, the eschatological, apocalyptic imagery that spoke to the people of first century BCE, to jar them – and us – from our labels, so comfortable and predictable and safe. In other words, I think Jesus was trying to grab each of us all by the collar and shout in our ear, “It’s the Jason’s of the world who got it right, stupid – not the righteous Mary Ann’s. Spare yourself the time and trouble of judgment because you’ve gotten it all wrong.”
I didn’t run into Jason all that much after the biology lab incident, only every now and again and never for long when I did. And although I haven’t laid eyes on him in the 25 years since we graduated college, I said a special prayer for him today. For his health and happiness, no matter where he is. And I said another too... that I might be more like him in all the ways that really matter. The stuff we think makes us holy and righteous may not be what matters in the end. Being there – just being there, in all our human imperfection – may be all that we are called to do.
Gospel Reflection for Sunday, November 20, 2016: Luke 23: 35-43
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
The psychologists call it “flashbulb memory,” that surprisingly accurate, never to be forgotten memory of a specific moment in time that had profound meaning. For my dad, one of those memories is exactly where he was and what he was doing when he heard the news that World War II had officially ended and he could return home. For my mom, it was the precise moment she learned of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
I have two such memories that I feel certain I will take to my grave. One was from when I was in college. I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt standing in an office. After laughing at the joke a professor made, I looked up to see the television screen over his shoulder where I watched the Challenger space shuttle, and the astronauts aboard it, burst into flame. The other was when I was an assistant principal at Assumption. I heard some commotion and walked out of my office to see the television this time replaying the tape of airplanes as they crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center over and over and over. That day, I was wearing black pants with a blue button down, a black jacket, and my favorite string of pearls.
A funny thing, these flashbulb memories. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning or which meetings I had yesterday, but I think I will remember how I felt in the black suit and the blue shirt and the pearls until the day I die. It seems that every generation has its cataclysmic events, and our brains are wired to capture them for us for all time.
In last week’s Gospel passage, Jesus predicted just such an event for the Jews – the destruction of the Temple. “The days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone,” he told his disciples. And if that weren’t enough, he warned that this would be accompanied by “powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place.” Even more, he cautioned that, “before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you; they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons” (Luke 21:5-19). I imagine that his disciples felt as cold and numb and confused as I felt standing there in my blue shirt and pearls watching what looked to me like the end of the world.
I think that we all face “the end of the world” many times in our lives and in many different ways. On an individual, personal level, it can feel like the end of the world when a loved one dies, when we go through a divorce, when we are let go from a job, when we can’t pay back the loan, or when the test results come back positive. But it affects us as communities too. I think as a Church, we faced such a cataclysmic time during the priest sex abuse scandal. And as a country, many of us may feel something quite similar today. Both those who are happy with the results of the presidential election and those who are not seem to feel a sense of catastrophe across the American landscape, just for different reasons.
But the good news is that there’s, well, Good News. In this week’s Gospel, we jump ahead to the story of Jesus on the cross between two criminals. Why the quick fast forward in the telling of the story? Because the Gospel writers symbolically paint a picture of Jesus as the Temple himself, the place where God and humankind can meet. And in facing his own demise, Jesus has some wisdom to share with us as we face the “end of the world,” both individually and as entire communities of which we are part. The one criminal hanging to his side taunts him dismissively by saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” But when the other one rebukes the first and asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, Jesus promises that “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:35-43).
In other words, in the face of his own unjust death and despite seeing everything he worked for come to a violent end, Jesus has a counterintuitive – if not completely crazy - response. Instead of righteous indignation and plans for retribution, he forgives. He speaks words of kindness. He accepts his own fate. He refuses to condemn others. He matches venom with peace and conquers hatred with love.
Perhaps when our world seems to be falling apart, when our own Temple crumbles at our feet, the best strategy may not be rallying the troops and launching a major counteroffensive. Maybe the best thing to do is to be kind, to forgive, to be merciful - even to those who caused the crumbling. Perhaps this is the most courageous thing we can ever do.
Gospel Reflection for Sunday, November 6, 2016: Luke 20: 27, 34-38
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
You learn lots of things as a newlywed. There are the big ones, like how to honor your family’s holiday traditions while still creating some of your own as a couple and what “ground rules” must be followed when you have a fight. And then, there are the ones that don’t seem so important but really are, like what to say when she asks, “Does this dress make me look fat?” and the best place to hide purchases you aren’t ready to come clean on yet. Twenty-two years ago when I got married, I learned about all of these things . . . and then some. But the one that stands out the most is the time I learned firsthand about the differences in how men and women communicate.
Kurt and I had been married only a couple months when I came home from a full day of teaching in quite a state. For the life of me, I can’t recall what I was so worked up about, but I was hopping mad about something that had happened at school that day. And there was my sweet husband, ready to listen and comfort. Just after walking in the door, I started into a litany of grievances about whatever it was that had me in a lather, and to my relief, I noticed that my husband held eye contact with me as I spoke. He even nodded periodically and murmured an occasional “uh huh” and “oh” to show he was following me. Encouraged by his empathetic listening skills, I went on, explaining in fine grain detail all about the hurt or disappointment that had me so upset. As I railed against my adversaries, whoever or whatever they were, I have to admit that on the inside I felt a secret pride in my excellent choice of life partner. We were in this together, I thought, and even though I was still upset about whatever happened that day, I was comforted in knowing that Kurt supported me.
Until, that is, he opened his mouth. The very second my diatribe ended, he said, “I need to withdraw $60 out of our checking account because the weed eater is broken, and I need to buy a new one.”
“Okay?” was all I could think to say in the moment. But I made sure to give him the cold shoulder for reasons he could not fathom for hours after he returned from the Home Depot.
I laugh about that story today . . . me longing for emotional support while Kurt just wanted to take care of business. When I tell that story to friends, I make him out to be the unwitting villain, just for laughs. But I know better. He wasn’t the only “bad guy.” We had each missed the point. Yes, my husband had missed the fact that I needed him to really listen, not just wait for me to stop talking. But I had also missed the fact that I dove into my speech with big expectations from him without taking into account that he was in the middle of trying to solve a problem for us.
I think that last week’s Gospel reading about Zacchaeus, the short tax collector, and this week’s involving tricky questions about rightful marriage partners after death are really about the same thing – missing the point. I’ve always liked the story of Zacchaeus’ change of heart. At the time of Jesus, the Romans hired individuals to collect taxes due to Caesar from their fellow Jews. The Romans let these tax collectors charge any rate of interest they wanted as long as the Roman Empire got its due. Since he is described as the “chief tax collector” and a “wealthy man,” we know Zacchaeus must have used these rules to his financial advantage. But Jesus sees the short man atop a tall tree and insists upon visiting Zacchaeus’ home that evening, much to the horror of the religious elite who were scandalized at the thought of Jesus hanging out with a sinner. Undaunted, Zacchaeus announces a dramatic change of heart – that he will give away half of what he has and will repay any money he extorted four-fold. And Jesus tells him that salvation is his reward. To Jesus, the Jewish leaders who objected to Zacchaeus’ profession had missed the whole point.
Then this Sunday we will hear about a clever scheme by the Sadducees, a group of the religious leaders at the time of Jesus who revered the Law and Temple but did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. In an attempt to outsmart Jesus, they challenge him with a riddle. In the Jewish tradition, it was understood that when a man dies without children, that man’s brother should marry his widow. So they ask Jesus - if that man has seven brothers and each marries the widow before dying himself, only for the next brother to take his place, with whom will the widow be reunited in the resurrection once she dies as well? She had been married to all seven, they reason, so who is her true husband in eternity? I picture Jesus shaking his head and saying something like, “Oh, for crying out loud, guys.” He makes it clear that he doesn’t have time for such games.In effect, he tells them, “You’ve completely missed the point.” It’s not about the legal requirements of Jewish law; it’s about what’s in your heart. That’s the only thing that matters when it comes to eternity.
In one way, both of these stories point us to the same reality – that all too often we make the mistake of getting caught up in the wrong things, of failing to see the forest through the trees. We decide that it’s only people who live in certain ways and make certain choices and worship in certain buildings and vote for certain candidates and have certain jobs and say certain things who are “saved.” But Jesus makes it clear, both to the crowd that scoffs at his insistence in coming to Zacchaeus’ home and to the Sadducees who try to trap him in legal gymnastics, that they’ve completely missed the point. To me, the real point seems to be about having the right heart. About loving. About forgiving. About kindness. All the rest is just window dressing.
Maybe we’re all a little bit like newlyweds as we awkwardly try to figure things out and find our way. In doing so, sometimes we miss the point. But like Jesus told us with Zacchaeus last week and as he’ll instruct us this Sunday, the external trappings of our lives matter so much less than what’s down deep in our hearts.
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
My mother is in a nursing home. I registered both of my parents as new residents there a little over a year ago. On that day, both of them walked into their new home using canes. In the 13 months since then, my father has died, and my mother’s decline has been dramatic. To be clear, their condition has nothing to do with the facility; I have been very happy with the care they’ve received. It’s just that their decline has been far more swift and profound than anything I was prepared for. My mother has not been able to walk or move on her own for many months now, and her dementia has turned this extravagantly kind and caring woman with a zest for life into a fearful, sad, barely recognizable version of the person I knew her to be.
Mom still knows I am someone she loves, but she does not always remember my name. And although she asked about Dad in the weeks after his death, she no longer seems to recall his existence. Perhaps that is a blessing. Occasionally, she will utter a complete sentence, but more often than not, what she says doesn’t make sense. But that’s not the worst of it; the worst is how she reacts to the lift. Because she cannot use the bathroom herself or get in and out of bed on her own, aides must use a mechanical lift to move Mom. And it terrifies her. She doesn’t remember from one time to the next that it doesn’t hurt her at all, so every single time the lift is used, she cries in fear and desperation. I have a hard time hearing her like that; I usually have to walk down the hall and into another room to keep myself together. Then when it’s all over, she will continue to cry, and I’ll hug her saying, “Mom, what’s wrong?” And she’ll truthfully answer, “I don’t know.”
Last week’s Gospel passage was a tricky one for me. In it, Jesus tells us to be like the “persistent woman” who pesters the dishonest judge “who neither feared God nor respected any human being” (Luke 18:2). The woman needed his judgment on some legal matter, so she kept after him until he finally gave in and did what she requested. The tricky part of this story is that it’s so tempting to think it’s about the need to be persistent in asking God for what we want to happen. Maybe that’s a fine message, but to be honest, it leaves me cold. After all, I have been incredibly persistent in asking God – begging, actually – to make my parents’ end-of-life journeys less horrible for them . . . and for me. If there were medals for persistence asking God to change things, I’d have a gold one around my neck, Dad would have passed away having endured far less pain, and Mom would not be scared completely out of her mind multiple times a day just to be moved.
No, I can’t believe Jesus encouraged our persistence in prayer in order to get God to do something God might not otherwise consider. I can’t believe that Jesus thinks God needs to be cajoled or manipulated or bribed. I refuse to put my faith in a God doesn’t answer my prayers because he’s too busy with more important matters or because he wants to teach me a lesson or because he’s testing my faith. I cannot believe in such a small God.
Fortunately though, this week’s Gospel reading has helped me unravel the trickiness of last week’s passage. This Sunday, Jesus will highlight the difference between the Pharisee who prays with much pomp and circumstance while making known how holy he thinks he is. In contrast, the tax collector who is humble and sinful yet honest on the inside is held up by Jesus as the one who makes the perfect prayer. And therein lies the rub. When it comes to prayer, it’s not about talking God into changing things on the “outside” of our lives. It’s about opening ourselves to the possibility of transformation on the “inside.”
I can ask God from today through all eternity to calm my mother’s fears and care for her physical challenges. I can be a gold medal winning, record-setting rock star of a persistent pray-er, but my mother will continue to fear the lift as though it were the devil himself. But it’s not because God is hard-hearted or a procrastinator. It’s not because he wants me to prove how much I really want what I’ve requested. I think it’s because Life is Life, in all it’s painful, maddening glory, and it will unfold however it will. All the bargaining I do with heaven to try to make things align more closely with my preferences probably won’t change a darn thing. On the outside, that is.
For me, prayer is much more of an “inside job.” It’s not about God doing magic tricks; it’s about God working in the depths of my heart to make me kinder, more compassionate, maybe even brave. I find myself now praying less that Mom isn’t frightened and more that I can be faithful to Mom even when I can’t stand to hear her cry out. I pray less that she will remember her grandson’s name and more that we can be true companions for her on this scary, painful journey she is on. I pray less that God turns Mom back into the person I remember from my childhood and more that God transforms me into the kind of person she needs me to be as she approaches death. In my clearer moments, I know that God has truly answered those prayers.
Persistence in prayer isn’t necessary to convince God to do my bidding. But it is necessary to keep my heart open to work of the Holy Spirit in my life. I’ve learned that God isn’t a Santa Claus in the Sky. He’s not a fickle Spiritual Sugar Daddy who needs to be coaxed into action. He’s not a vindictive Mob Boss whose palms need to be greased with abject begging in order to make things right. For me, God is the very heart beat inside the miracle of Life as it unfolds in its crazy, majestic, painful ways. When my prayer focuses on the inside of things, not just the external circumstances I’d like to see happen, I know my prayers are always answered. Prayer is real and it works - not because it changes God’s mind but because it changes our hearts.
Gospel Reflection for Sunday, October 9, 2016: Luke 17:11-19
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
When I was a kid, my favorite television show was Super Friends, a weekly cartoon that aired every Saturday morning at 8:00 a.m. Each episode chronicled the tales of the Justice League, a band of crime-fighting superheroes who stood for goodness and fought crime no matter the cost. I loved Superman in all his faster-than-a-speeding bullet glory, and although I was partial to the real-life, Linda Carter version of Wonder Woman that I watched during prime time, every Saturday morning I longed to borrow the indestructible bracelets and Lasso of Truth that I saw her cartoon image wield with such strength and grace. And, truth be told, even at age nine, I had a wicked crush on Aqua Man. Something about him being able to talk telepathically to marine life sent me over the moon. I distinctly remember one Saturday morning at around 8:15 a.m. when my mother, for reasons surpassing understanding, decided to tell me about the “birds and the bees.” I blurted out, “Not now, Mom!” and ran back to my place in front of the television set before she was finished. After all, there were evil cartoon criminals intent on planetary destruction that had to be subdued. I couldn’t waste time on silly stuff when I was needed to cheer on the efforts of my pure-hearted, take-no-prisoners, anatomically impossible band of comic heroes.
Even though I knew it was all make believe, I still wished for super powers myself. Perhaps all of us longed for to have X-ray vision, the ability to become invisible at will, or the gift of flight. When we were kids, it didn’t seem so crazy. We didn’t understand how lots of things in life happened as they did – how the sun rose and set, how steak fries weren’t actually made of beef, how our parents somehow knew what we did wrong at school even though they weren’t there to see it themselves. But then we grew up. And as we added full-time jobs and spouses and mortgages and countless responsibilities to our lives, we left our “magical thinking” behind.
Or did we? Sometimes I think I may still wish for “super powers,” if not for myself then for someone else who will come to some imagined rescue. I think I still fall into the trap of thinking that what I need is some sort of “magic trick” or some sort of “superhero” to come along and make things the way I think they should be. Perhaps we all do. But in the Gospels, Jesus seems to have a different message for us.
Last Sunday, Jesus told us that all we need is the faith of a “mustard seed.” It’s a lovely message . . . but that isn’t the part of the Gospel story that interests me most. Jesus goes on from there to make an apparently off-topic, downright insensitive comment about how servants who have worked in the field all day shouldn’t come in and sit immediately at the table for the meal. Instead, they should wait on the master first before dining themselves.
Then this Sunday, we’ll hear Jesus tell the story about the 10 lepers that he heals although only one returns to thank him. Again, it’s a lovely message about the importance of gratitude . . . but that’s not the best part of the story for me. The real kicker for me is where and when the healing takes place. There’s no big poof or crack of lightning and then voila! –
the lepers are healed. Instead, after they ask Jesus to have pity on them, he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. The healing takes place sometime as they walk off one difficult step at a time toward their destination and only dawns on the grateful one in transit.
I think the genius of both stories is Jesus’ message about the simple beauty and miraculous wonder of putting one foot in front of the other in our daily, boring, not-even-close-to-Hollywood-kind-of-exciting lives. Last week, Jesus did NOT say that after working all day, the servant should be rewarded by having his meal before his usual duties are completed. Instead, he said the servant should go ahead and do the daily chores he always does. And this week, Jesus will NOT heal the lepers instantly by snapping his fingers or waving a wand. Instead, the lepers recognize, perhaps gradually over time, that they have been healed somehow on the long journey by foot to see the priests.
I hear Jesus telling us in these stories that faith isn’t about believing in some sort of religious magic. There are no “super friends” out there who are going to make the dreaded evils of our lives disappear in dramatic fashion. Faith is really about living life one day at a time – in all its tedious, unnerving, confusing glory. Religious writer and speaker Paula D’Arcy has written that, “God comes to you disguised as your life.” I think that might be what Jesus was getting at. The Kingdom of God isn’t created by today’s equivalent of Superman or Wonder Woman. Rather, it’s built one brick at a time by regular old folks like you and me who go to work and do our chores and get annoyed when the dog pees on the carpet and look forward to binge-watching House of Cards on the weekends . . . but still try to do good and be kind along the way.
It must be said—I still think Aqua Man is a hunk. And I would still love to have both the graceful power and tiny waistline that Wonder Woman enjoys. But I don’t need them anymore. All I really need is the ordinary life I have.
Gospel Reflection for Sunday, September 25, 2016: Luke 16: 19-31
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
Part of my career journey included being part of the leadership team at a community center located in one of Louisville’s most impoverished neighborhoods. In this role, I oversaw the staff and initiatives related to the center’s senior citizen program, youth development program, food bank, and child development center. And in this position, just like every other leadership position I’ve had, the absolute worst part about it was having to fire people.
She worked in the child development center and was on my radar within a week of starting my job. She was nice enough and was pretty good with the kids in her care, but she came to work late more often than she was on time, and sometimes even failed to call in at all on days she was absent. Not knowing whether we could count on her to be present or not cause huge problems in providing appropriate care for the children, managing state mandated caregiver ratios, and avoiding resentment from the rest of the staff who showed up and called in like they were supposed to.
But I knew the score. I knew that the vast majority of the staff at the community center came from the surrounding economically challenged neighborhood. I knew that only 50% of the adults in the community had driver’s licenses, and hardly even that many had high school diplomas. I knew that poverty was as much a part of the fabric of their lives as oxygen was to mine. So when this employee’s absences, tardiness, and failure to follow procedures surfaced, I tried to find solutions. I offered to call her early each morning so that she would get up in time to get to work, and I purchased TARC vouchers so she would not have to pay for transportation. But no dice. Even when these measures failed to work, I still gave her numerous warnings in hopes that she would be able to get her act together before I had to take more drastic action. But nothing worked. Eventually, I had to terminate her employment.
As hard and unpleasant as it was, I knew I had done the right thing . . . until the next work day when I saw her, not in the child development center where she had worked, but in line at the food bank. Now that she was out of work, she had to rely on Dare to Care in order to feed her young children. Looking back, I still believe I did what a manager has to do in that situation. But I do have a profound regret I can’t shake. I do not remember her name.
The Zulu people in South Africa use a common greeting - “Sowa Bona.” It means, “I see you.” I find that to be an amazingly powerful statement. And even more, the Zulu people often respond to such a greeting by saying, “Sikhona,” which means, “Because you see me, I am here.” What a gift – to be truly seen by another, and in so doing, to become who one is meant to be. I have thought of that young woman I fired many, many times since then. But because I don’t remember her name, I would have to conclude that I never really “saw” her.
In last week’s Gospel reading, we heard Jesus tell a truly bizarre story about an “unscrupulous manager” who is applauded for using some shady tactics to win favor with the boss. And this Sunday, we’ll hear Jesus give us another warning about failing to share our earthly riches with those in need. In it, a rich man chooses not share even the scraps from his table with a poor, sick man named Lazarus. What fascinates me the most about this parable isn’t the message. After all, Jesus warning folks about the dangers of becoming too attached to worldly goods is nothing new or unique. It’s a topic he’s quite fond of. In fact, the word “poor” shows up in the Bible over 600 times, which is significantly more than even seemingly important words like “grace,” “joy,” “love,” and “wisdom.” The only words that show up more than “poor” are “God,” “Jesus,” and “Lord.” Clearly then, how we deal with those in poverty of all types is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. No, it’s not this message that really does a number on me; it’s the fact that it’s the only parable Jesus tells in which a character is named.
In Jesus’ other parables, we meet the woman at the well, the good shepherd, the prodigal son, and a whole host of others. But in Sunday’s Gospel, we meet Lazarus – covered in sores, abjectly poor, a person who might as well be invisible to the rest of the world. He isn’t “a poor man.” He is “Lazarus.” He has a name.
Mother Theresa, now Saint Theresa of Calcutta, wrote that, “The great disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread, but there are many more dying for a little love.” The sin I now ask God’s forgiveness for is not that I fired the young woman from the child development center. It’s that I didn’t know her name. I didn’t “see” her
My prayer as I reflect on this week’s Gospel is not just that we all do more to help the poor. It’s also that we can grow in our ability to truly “see” the people whose profound needs – physical, emotional, psychological - scare us to our core and make us uncomfortable. I think Jesus’ call for us is not just to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty but also to truly “see” each other as children of God.
Gospel Reflection for Sunday, September 11, 2016: Luke 15: 1-32
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve said a prayer to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, I feel certain I could retire next week. Comfortably. Remember the old rhyme? “Tony, Tony, turn around. Something’s lost that must be found.” As a kid, I probably said those lines two or three hundred thousand times in hopes I’d be reunited with my long lost stuffed animal, homework assignment, winter jacket, lunch box, borrowed sweater, camera, or spending money. I can’t be sure, but it’s quite likely that I may very well be the actual inspiration that prompted the first person to ever say, “That girl would lose her head if it weren’t attached.”
Guilty as charged. Even as an adult, every few months I have a recurring nightmare about losing my purse – and the phone, credit cards, identification, and money inside of it. In each dream, I keep struggling to retrace my steps only to find no trace of my bag but quite a few annoying people who lack any concern for my plight. I have at times awakened paralyzed in fear before realizing it was just a dream. No doubt about it – losing important stuff can be terrifying.
In the Gospel we’ll hear this coming Sunday, Jesus talk about all kinds of lost things. He will tell us about how happy the shepherd is when one lost sheep is found, how glad the woman is when she recovers one missing coin, and how overjoyed the father is when his son returns home. Why all the fuss over loss? I can think of a couple reasons.
The first one has to do with what is going on in the Gospels when we hear these stories. For some weeks now, we’ve been hearing about how the Pharisees have been royally ticked off by Jesus because his disciples fail to adhere to all of the ritual purity codes that are part of their faith, and – horror of horrors - Jesus himself actually heals people on the Sabbath. They can’t imagine that this guy creating such a stir could be “for real” if he doesn’t follow the rules. But Jesus tries to explain that there are good reasons for what he does because it’s all about bringing people back to God. And God does some kind of an amazing happy dance when just one of us returns to his embrace. You think the shepherd and the woman are thrilled with their finds? You think the father is beside himself with joy when his sees his son? Well, that’s nothing compared to the party God wants to throw when one of us comes home.
But there might be another reason this Sunday’s Gospel doesn’t just tell one story about losing something precious but three of them. Jesus might have something else to say about loss. Last week, the Gospel reading was hard to take. Jesus actually told us that any disciple of his would have to “hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life.” And if the point wasn’t clear enough, he goes on to insist that any disciple of his must “renounce all his possessions” (Luke 14: 26, 33). Tough stuff indeed.
I find it fascinating that last Sunday’s “get rid of everything you hold dear” is followed by this week’s series of stories about loss. I can’t believe that Jesus literally wants me to hate my son and mother and have nothing to live on. So there must be something else at work here. Perhaps it is this – whether we “renounce” the things that are precious to us or not, we are likely to lose them anyway. Despite our best efforts, every last one of us will lose something and someone precious to us. During the course of our lifetimes, most of us will lose lots of possessions, like the missing purse in my nightmares. But far worse, many of us will lose our youthful optimism and the hopes we had when we dared to dream wildly. Some of us will lose our stamina, our patience, and at times, possibly even our faith. If we are lucky enough to live into old age, we’ll lose our looks, the physical abilities we now take for granted, and possibly even our cognitive grasp on the world. And without a doubt, all of us will lose at least one person we adore. Probably more than one. In many ways, being human means having your heart broken.
But the great thing is that the brokenness isn’t the end of the story. As Christians we believe that it’s through that very brokenness that we are made whole. I think Jesus was really on to something. Like he said in last week’s Gospel, we could choose to “renounce” people and possessions by still loving and living fully but not insisting that life be the precise way we choose for it to be. Or like Jesus seems to be saying this week, we might just lose those things we cling to so desperately through bad choices, senseless tragedy, or dumb luck. Either way, if we are truly open to God’s work in our life, we win in the end. Being lost – by choice or by circumstance – invites the God of broken hearts into our most vulnerable places where true healing and peace and new life become possible. The old rhyme is true: “Something’s lost that must be found.” And in a crazy, beautiful sort of way, that’s very good news.
Gospel Reflection for Sunday, August 28, 2016: Luke 14: 1, 7-14
By Mary Ann Steutermann, Director of Campus Ministry
I have a small yet deep scar to the left side of my right knee, and if I live to be 100, I don’t think I’ll ever forget how it got there. I don’t recall what year it was, but I know I was very young, and it was summer, the kind of summer that to my middle-aged recollection seemed to involve a lot more ice cream floats and lightning bugs in glass jars and far less ozone action alerts and summer reading homework than the ones I’m familiar with today.
I should have been ecstatic. My parents had just gotten me a brand spanking new Barbie Pop-Up Camper. I should have been on cloud nine. And I was . . . until I noticed that my younger sister had also gotten a lovely new gift, the Barbie Dream House. Sure, a mini-fridge, murphy bed, and portable hot tub all on four wheels is nothing to sneeze at. But seeing the full three floors of this fully decorated, pretty-in-pink, palatial Barbie mansion land in my sister’s lap instead of mine was a little hard to take. I sulked for a few minutes or maybe weeks, and then eventually decided to make the best of it. I would make my own Barbie palace.
So I found some old Porter Paint boxes my dad had in the basement with the intention of gluing them together and adorning them with various and sundry discarded household items that I would paint pink. I scrounged and plotted and dreamed, and for quite a while that summer, I spent hours outside each day working on my real estate project. And each day when I was ready to call it quits, I would pack up all my found items, tape, glue, and finger paints into the Porter Paint boxes and stack them away until next time.
Until the day I cut my knee. I had just taken my boxes to a shady place in the yard to begin the day’s construction work when I made my mistake. Without thinking, I flipped the first box over to dump all of its contents out on the grass so I could see everything I was working with, but I had forgotten there was a pair of scissors in there. One of the blades hit its mark straight on just southwest of my right kneecap. There was blood everywhere, which terrified me, so I did the only reasonable thing a smart kid like me would do. I screamed like I was being murdered until my dad ran outside, assessed the damage, and said, “Oh, for goodness sake, honey. You’re fine.” He cleaned me up and bandaged my cut. And he was right. I was fine.
At mass lately, we’ve been hearing about things Jesus did and said that turn conventional wisdom completely on its head. Last Sunday, we heard Jesus say, “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:30). And then this coming Sunday, we’ll hear about Jesus dining at the house of a Pharisee and teaching the guests that when they are at a wedding banquet, they shouldn’t take the place of honor they are due. Instead, they should let the lowly, good-for-nothing free loaders who don’t really know the bride or groom and didn’t bring a gift but sure do enjoy a good party when they see one have the places of honor. And in case Jesus’ listeners didn’t get the point, He goes on to tell them that when they have a big shin-dig, they shouldn’t invite their friends and neighbors and the crew from the office. Instead, they should invite the sick and the poor and the completely unworthy. “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
I doubt Jesus was all that interested in giving advice to party planners. But I do think he had something to say about our old Porter Paint boxes. Boxes help us order and manage our lives. They help us store our gear when we move from place to place, and they provide a home for those old vinyl albums our kids still don’t believe ever really existed and that we secretly think we’ll make money off one day. They give shelter to our belongings so that we don’t continually trip over the artifacts of our everyday life, and they allow us to be organized and efficient. Boxes are good . . . until we misuse them.
I wonder if sometimes we put people and ideas in boxes when that’s not where they belong. Jason is in the “Good” box, but Joanie is in the “Bad” one. Tracy’s in the “Never Finished Her Degree” box, whereas Tony’s more of a “Hasn’t Seen the Inside of a Church Since Nixon” kind of guy. Susan goes in the “Demonic Democrat” box while Sam over there is in the “Wretched Republican” one. Manuel is in the “Afraid of Commitment” box, and Meredith is in the “Gold Digger” one. We’re in the “Right” box. And Lord knows they’re in the “Wrong” one.
Surely, the Jesus we encounter in the Gospel readings lately is perfectly content to leave the seating arrangements for the big gala to the professional event planners. I think He has a more powerful message for us. Our Porter Paint boxes and the categories that come with them are good when we use them to decide whether we need to buy a new car or can make the old one work one more year or select the best mutual funds for the retirement plan or weigh the relative advantages of low carb vs. low fat. But when we load up our boxes with things that don’t belong in them – like people, including ourselves – the hidden, sharp blades within them can cut us deeply and leave a scar.
One of my favorite writers doesn’t happen to be famous at all…at least, not in the traditional sense. And luckily for me, she’s right here at Assumption. Her name is Mary Ann Steutermann and she is our new director of campus ministry. However, Mary Ann is not new to Assumption: she spent twenty years here as an English and theology teacher and as an administrator. It was during her time as an administrator that I came to appreciate her writing. Each week, Mary Ann wrote a reflection in the faculty/staff weekly bulletin and we came to love her insight and wisdom. We are thrilled to have her back this year in a new role and with a new opportunity for her to share her reflections with you.
Twice a month, Mrs. Steutermann will invite us to reflect on the Sunday Gospel readings by sharing a reflection with the community. In this year of Mercy and in a year where we are all working to “live life in color,” may these reflections give you a colorful insight, perspective, and focus for your worship on Sundays.