What Would John the Baptist Say to Church Leaders Today?

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by New Ways Ministry’s Associate Director, Matthew Myers.  The liturgical readings for the Third Sunday of Advent are Zephaniah 3: 14:18; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

“What should we do?”  
 
John the Baptist is asked this question three times in today’s Gospel reading: by the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers.  John’s responses build upon his general call to repentance in which he instructs people how to act justly toward one another.  To the crowds, John replies, “Share your excess goods.”  To the tax collectors, “Don’t be greedy.”  And to the soldiers, he says, “Don’t steal people’s goods or destroy their reputations.”  Seems to me like pretty fair instructions.  
We all have those “What should we do?” moments, both big and small.  We ask this question because the way forward is unclear.  Often we turn to wisdom figures in our lives — people we admire and wish to emulate — to enlighten our minds and hearts.  And we turn to Scripture for guidance.
I wonder how John the Baptist might respond to Catholic leaders who choose to discriminate against LGBT employees because of their sexual orientation, gender identity,or relationship status — either by asking them to resign or by firing them outright.  At some point, these Catholic leaders inevitably ask themselves, “What should we do?” in this particular case.  
Rather than advocating the dismissal of LGBT employees, I think John the Baptist might respond by saying, “Don’t unjustly deprive people of their livelihoods” or maybe “Judge a person’s work, not their sexual orientation.” These instructions seem to be more consistent with what John told the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers than what some Catholic leaders choose to do.  
 
We are all responsible for the choices we make — for our answers to the question, “What should we do?”  Good choices help us to grow in our relationships with God and with other people.  Bad choices corrupt those relationships.  John preaches repentance for our bad choices because we need to repair the disharmony we create.  That is a challenge always before us, but one particularly present in the Advent season when we take a moral inventory of our choices to prepare for Christmas.  
 
On this third Sunday of Advent, I pray that Catholic leaders make choices that respect the integrity and consciences of their lesbian and gay employees — and that some Catholic leaders make amends to employees who have been unjustly fired.  And I pray for you and me, that we may have the wisdom and fortitude to make good choices and to repent for our bad ones.  
–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry

 

Why Does God Call John the Baptist and Other Nobodies?

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by New Ways Ministry’s Associate Director, Matthew Myers.  The liturgical readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126:1-6; Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

“Creator Confounds Critics by Calling Quirky Commoner.”  Perhaps that would be a good tabloid headline for today’s Gospel reading.  Let me explain why.
A depiction of John the Baptist

When I first read the passage from Luke, at first I really struggled to understand why the Gospel writer would list several prominent civil and religious leaders by name — Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas — before introducing John the Baptist.  How does their mention contribute to the story, if at all?  I grappled with this question until I had the idea to re-write the Gospel using people from today:

“In the seventh year of the presidency of Barack Obama,
when John Kerry was Secretary of State,
and Andrew Cuomo was governor of New York,
and Chris Christie the governor of New Jersey,
during the papacy of Francis,
the word of God came to Jane Doe in an Iowa cornfield.”
BAM!  I get it now.  God could have spoken to all kinds of powerful and influential people in my reimagined narrative — the President and Pope included! — but instead chose to talk with a nobody.  Of all the high and mighty people who have wealth, power, and fame — the very things we often associate with “importance” in this world  — God chose to talk with a nobody, a common person like you or me who enjoys none of those things.  And so it was that God spoke with John the Baptist, a nobody.
I admire John the Baptist.  He was a nobody who felt he had a mission from God to preach the forgiveness of sins. And so he did it.  John traveled “throughout the whole region of the Jordan” and baptized everyone who asked for it. He had great initiative, and that’s why I like him.
Over the years, I have met a lot of wonderful people who felt that God was pulling at their hearts to do something for LGBT justice in our church.  And like John the Baptist, they took action!  They may have felt called to preach a message of love and acceptance through social media, to reach out to their local bishop, to start an LGBT ministry at their parish, or any number of other outstanding and inspirational things.  They felt called, and they did something!
I admire these people with all my heart because they didn’t wait for someone else to take action–even if they felt like nobodies.  Even if they were “nobodies.” They didn’t wait for their bishop or their pastor to do it.  They just did what they felt God was moving them to do.  What is more simple or more beautiful than that?
So, during this Advent season, I invite you to do something good.  Do anything.  God is speaking to you — along with the rest of us “nobodies” — to do the work of building God’s reign on earth.  Just start now.  Just do it.

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry

John the Baptist’s Humble Example for LGBT Folks

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder.  The liturgical readings for the Third Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11; Luke 1:46-50, 53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

St. John the Baptist

I always imagined John the Baptist as a rather strident and coarse fellow, complete with his camel hair clothing, locust diet, apocalyptic message, and his uneasy relationship with authority (things didn’t end well with Herod).  I can’t imagine John being a person with whom I’d like to have coffee and a chat.  But, unpleasant or not, today’s Gospel presents John as a profoundly humble person who was deeply aware of his own identity and mission.  And I think we can learn a lot from him in this regard.

John the Baptist was an itinerant preacher who became famous enough for the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem to take notice and send priests to find and listen to him.  He was a celebrity.  So when the priests asked “Who are you?”, John demonstrated profound humility and integrity when he replied that he was not the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet, but simply a voice crying in the desert. John could have easily claimed the mantle of any of these very important persons and thereby increase his own celebrity among the people.  Can you imagine the flocks of would-be followers if he said (or even obliquely suggested) that he was Elijah or the Messiah? Perhaps that might have been a fleeting temptation for him.  But John chose to remain faithful to his own identity and to speak his own truth as he understood it.

I think John’s example to us, particularly for LGBT folks and those who advocate for them, is “I am my own person, with my own truth to proclaim in this world.  My story may be quite different from others,  but it is mine, and I must live it with integrity.”  Thomas Merton wrote a powerful reflection on this theme:

“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree… The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like [God]… This particular tree will give glory to God by spreading out its roots in the earth and raising its branches into the air and the light in a way that no other tree before or after it ever did or will do.”

We have many reasons to rejoice on this Third Advent Sunday, known as Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday, not least of which is the mystery of God becoming human in the person of Jesus. But I suggest we also take time to revel in our own uniqueness, the knowledge that each of us is utterly special in this world because no one can witness to God’s love in quite the same way.  Each of us can contribute to a more humane and compassionate world, not by living by the narratives of others, but by sharing our own unique stories, just as John the Baptist did.  By leading lives of integrity and openness, LGBT folks can give glory to God as only we can — and we should rejoice for the opportunity!

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry

John the Baptist As a Woman in a Red Dress

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder.  The liturgical readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 85: 9-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

“St. John the Baptist” by El Greco

The 2nd Sunday of Advent’s readings from Isaiah and the beginning of Mark’s gospel both call to mind John the Baptist, a central figure during this season of waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ. I have often thought that John the Baptist is a strange figure. He roams around the Judean countryside, wearing a leather belt and camel’s hair clothing, eating locusts and wild honey. I think that he must have seemed a little weird to the people of his day too. This peculiar figure had a message to preach, something the Judeans needed to hear.

I think of some of the odd people I know or meet. They seem strange to me because they don’t dress as I do, or think as I do, or respond as I do, but I feel sure they have a message I need to hear, just like I need to hear John the Baptist’s message. I believe God has inserted them into my life for a good reason. This Advent I resolved to look again at people I may label strange and to ask myself “How are they ‘John the Baptist’ for me? What message or lesson do they have for me?”

I shared this idea of my “strange John the Baptist” with a small Eucharistic community with whom I regularly worship on Wednesday evenings. Bob, one of the group, told us about his visits to a shelter where he helps to serve meals to some of the city’s homeless. Recently, while handing out some sandwiches for lunch, he saw, across the room, a white-haired woman in a new and exquisite red dress. Strange, he thought. She was not one of the servers, but she did not look like the typical person he encountered in the shelter’s lunch line. As he approached her, he heard her muttering indistinguishable syllables over and over, under her breath, in a rhythmic pattern. Whirling around in circles and making a humming sound, she looked like a big beautiful top, spinning in a corner of the lunchroom.

Here was a John the Baptist figure, not in a leather belt and camel’s hair clothing, but in an attractive red frock with neat white hair. What prophetic message was she delivering?

After the liturgy I thought much about Bob’s John the Baptist figure. The woman appeared lovely in her external world, but her inner life was bewildered and confused. I think that I am like that red-robed woman when my interior and exterior lives are not in harmony. When at times I appear to be kind and loving, but inwardly resent others’ good fortune because it isn’t mine, I hope I think of the woman in the red dress.

Many of us rejoice that we now have a pope who wants to welcome LGBT people into the Church, but inwardly some may grumble that the official teaching on sexuality has not changed. We forget that Pope Francis said, in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, that we are not to be “obsessed” with a multitude of doctrines and that we should avoid a “preoccupation” with doctrine (par. 35 and 94). Rather our goal, he said, is to “concentrate on the essentials,” on the heart of the Gospel or the basic core, which is “the saving love of God” (par. 35 and 36). Doctrines, really, are not essential to Christianity. Jesus had no doctrines, only the law of love.

Perhaps we can outwardly express some sympathy for conservative Catholics who feel lost, rudderless, and insecure because the Church is now experiencing climate change at the highest Vatican level; but secretly we might feel some amusement or glee when we read that conservative bloggers are talking about schism. We pride ourselves on being Vatican II Catholics, yet we forget that Vatican II taught that unity does not mean uniformity. Catholics can understand the Church differently, but we are all part of the same Church in Christ. We are many branches, but we are all rooted in the one vine, which is Christ.

During this Advent season, let’s think of the strange John the Baptists in our lives who have a constructive and vital message to bring us. Who are the women in stunning red dresses, muttering gibberish, who are calling us to resolve the dissonance between our interior and exterior lives?

–Sister Jeannine Gramick, New Ways Ministry

 

Patiently Waiting for the Desert to Bloom With Abundant Flowers

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder.  The liturgical readings for the third Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; Psalm 146: 6-7, 8-9, 9-10; James 5:7-10;  Matthew 11:2-11.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

Since Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium or The Joy of the Gospel, first appeared in late November, I have been reading this book-length document in small pieces. The other day, as I sat in my easy chair and continued to soak in his words of encouragement and advice, I found myself at the section about spiritual reading, particularly reading the Word of God. “Great!” I thought. “Here’s some help for the homily I need to write!”

Pope Francis writes that, after we perform a recollected reading of the text, we ask ourselves some questions about the Scripture passage. What does this text say to me? What about my life needs to change? What do I find pleasant or attractive in this text for my life? Francis says that we need to avoid the temptation to apply the passage to other people. Now, this hits home! During the Scripture readings at Sunday worship service, I sometimes find myself thinking, “I hope so-and-so heard that!”

With Francis’ advice at hand, I read and reread the Scripture texts for the Third Sunday of Advent to figure out what God was saying to me. Isaiah speaks of a joyful time when all will be made right and good: feeble hands and weak knees will be strengthened, blind eyes will be opened, and deaf ears will hear. But until this time arrives, the epistle of James cautions us to be patient, just as the farmer waits for the rains to water the precious fruit of the earth. We are not to complain about one another, but look to the prophets as examples of the patience God asks of us.

The Gospel reading gives us an example in the prophet, John the Baptist. John preached a stirring message of repentance for sin and baptism with water to cleanse the body and soul, but John waited patiently for a Messianic figure, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. From his prison cell, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if his waiting time is over. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” John is an example of patience.

In my own life, I find that it’s “the little things” about which I am impatient. Why is the car in front of me going so slowly? Why do I feel exasperated when others don’t do things the way I do? Why am I annoyed when I can’t find my gloves or keys? Why do these things alter my mood from one of peace and lightheartedness to sourness and grumbling?

I seem to be somewhat patient about “the big things,” like changes in the church’s teaching on homosexuality or sexuality, in general, because history attests to the evolution of thought and understanding about sexuality. As the Christian community learned about the workings of human sexuality from the various sciences, I see how we adapted our ideas about sexual morality and ethics. We already see these changes of thought in various theological positions and in the minds and hearts of the laity. I believe that one day these sexual teachings will change on the hierarchical level, so I am a bit patient, although I sometimes ask, “How long, Lord? How long?”

Or perhaps I am learning to be patient about “the big things” of Church doctrines because I am coming to see that Church teachings are rightly fading in importance. Maybe they don’t need to change right now, but just recede into the background until they can be modified. As Pope Francis has said, “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines.” The Church needs to focus “on the essentials, on…what makes the heart burn, … (on) the Gospel.”

Pope Francis is guiding us back to the essential message of Jesus that the Church needs to preach and we need to hear: God loves us just as we are, in all our sinfulness and messiness and impatience and is calling us to love God in return by showing love for others, ourselves, and all of creation.

So during this Third Sunday of Advent, I pray for patience in “the little things” and “the big things” until the time, as Isaiah says, when the desert will “bloom with abundant flowers.”

As I write these Advent words, I can look up from my desk to see a plaque on my office wall. On the plaque is one of my favorite excerpts from a letter of Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger, the foundress of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, to her sisters. Her words are a fitting reminder of Advent patience: “All the works of God proceed slowly and in pain; therefore, their roots are sturdier and their flowering the lovelier.”

–Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, New Ways Ministry

Choosing Between Mercy and Judgment

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder.  The liturgical readings for the second Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72: 1-2. 7-8, 12-13, 17; Romans 15: 4-9; Matthew 3: 1-12.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

“Slay the wicked.”  “Crush the oppressor.”  “Coming wrath.”  “Unquenchable fire.”  In today’s readings, Isaiah and John the Baptist use some strong language about God’s impending judgment and wrath.  And I like it. 

I would not mind seeing some hardcore divine judgment fall upon people who perpetrate evil in our world.  I am tired of reading in the news about hungry children, homeless families, corrupt politicians, war-torn countries, and corporate greed.  I am angry that the strong and influential exploit the weak and unknown.  How long, O Lord, until the oppressors are crushed and the wicked are slain?

However, contrary to Isaiah, John the Baptist, and my own deeply flawed heart, judgment and wrath are not the way of Jesus or the God he proclaimed.

Through Jesus, we see that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).  God overwhelms all of us with love that exceeds our ability to sin – that is mercy!  It is not asked for or deserved, but freely and lavishly given.  Judgment and wrath bring only sadness and death into our world, not life – and our God is one of abundant life.  Mercy brings true justice and wholeness into our world.   

What does this mean to us?  As Catholic LGBT people and allies, we can create a more inclusive Church by welcoming God’s abundant mercy into our own hearts, and then by sharing that love with others–particularly with those fellow Catholics who may say disparaging things or create discriminatory policies against LGBT people.  It is our own experience of undeserved mercy that compels us to generously extend mercy to others. 

For example, if a bishop or pastor condemns marriage equality, I think denouncing him as a bigot who hates lesbian and gay people is not consistent with what Jesus taught.  Our culture encourages us to attack those who disagree with us, but angry words and vitriol will only magnify and perpetuate the mistrust and rancor in our Church.  Instead, perhaps we should focus on building relationships – invite the bishop or pastor to have coffee or lunch to share our stories.  Send him a Christmas card with a family photo.  If he keeps us at arm’s length, we should keep the doors open by periodically reaching out to him.  Our task is to build bridges rather than throw stones. 

Our loving witness and patient invitation to dialogue will give others the opportunity to experience God’s mercy – and possibly change their hearts about LGBT people.  We pursue justice for LGBT people by changing hearts through showing mercy in personal interactions, not through judgment and wrath.

There is power in mercy.  As we continue our Advent preparations, perhaps we can reflect on how God’s “mercy triumphs over justice” in our own lives – and how we can show mercy to others.

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry

Hoping in Christ Amid Troubling Times

The Visitation

The liturgical readings for the fourth Sunday of Advent are Micah 5: 1-4a, Hebrews 10:5-10, and Luke 1:39-45. You can view the readings here: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/122312.cfm

In the Advent season, we ascend towards a peak expectation for Christ’s coming that plays out this fourth Sunday. The readings today unequivocally proclaim the coming goodness, exuding hope in these final moments before we celebrate the Incarnation!

Yet, life’s daily demands coupled with so many troubling moments these last few days may challenge our participation in the joy of Advent’s peak that Scripture calls us to. On Catholic LGBT issues, the news this week reveals an undercurrent of strengthened anti-equality messaging from the Vatican and the rejection of LGBT students at Catholic schools. Travesties such as the Newtown massacre add to this challenge of truly hoping in Christ.

In the first two readings, the prophet Micah and St. Paul address religious communities short on hope and weary of living their faith. Micah preaches against those who dutifully perform rituals while sustaining an unjust society, instead favoring a return to just human relationships as God’s truest desire for us. In today’s excerpt, we hear:

“You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah
too small to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel…

“He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock
by the strength of the LORD,
in the majestic name of the LORD, his God;
and they shall remain, for now his greatness
shall reach to the ends of the earth;
he shall be peace.”

The peasant prophet identifies a marginalized community as the place from which the greatest ruler of Israel and restoration of thriving religious belief will emanate. For Micah, it is the suffering and outcast communities that create and catalyze this return to righteousness, not the established institutions or most ritually pious. From the margins comes the hope, the joy, the peace, and the love that we must create in the world.

Perhaps, even when tough news dominates, we can learn to leap with joy like John the Baptist does in Elizabeth’s womb, as today’s gospel describes. We should embrace love of each person in place of religious legalism that obfuscates Christ’s presence. We should welcome all persons into our churches, focusing on the presence of love in each person and every relationship. And when we cannot love as such and feel pained or powerless, we must remember the words of Oscar Romero that speak to the true origins of our hope:

“We can hope for [justice], not because we humans are able to construct that realm of happiness which God’s holy words proclaim, but because the builder of a reign of justice, of love, and of peace is already in the midst of us.”

May we always be aware of this reality and respond joyfully to it, even in troubling times.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry