Coming Out to Proclaim the Gospel of Jesus

John Michael Reyes

For Ash Wednesday and the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 is presenting spiritual reflections from a diverse group of students at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California,  who either identify as LGBTQ+ or who are involved with LGBTQ+ theological research and/or ministry.  Today’s post is from John Michael Reyes, who holds a Master of Divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University. His spiritual formation, community life and heart is with the Franciscan School of Theology (Berkeley), now located in Oceanside, CA.  He has served as a hospital chaplain, liturgist and currently works at Santa Clara University’s Campus Ministry focusing onSacramental Formation and Liturgy.  He is a native San Franciscan who enjoys working out at the nearest OrangeTheory Fitness and is a parishioner of Most Holy Redeemer Parish, San Francisco. John Michael is coordinating the liturgies at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” April 28-30, 2017, in Chicago.  See the end of this post for more information on the event.

Scripture readings for the Third Sunday of Lent can be found by clicking here.

Have you ever been so embarrassed that it paralyzed you?

In my 29 years of living, I have been embarrassed by my actions many times, resulting in not being able to  “show face.”  I have made poor decisions that impacted the opinion of people I value.  My childhood was not fun: I dealt with challenges ranging from abuse to the repercussions of not fulfilling a parent’s dream that I pursue the medical or legal professions.  Later in life, an unhealthy environment led me to isolation and a diagnosis of depression. A suicide attempt shook all parts of my life. I was embarrassed to show myself at events.  I hid until the coast was clear to do the things I needed to do: to eat, to do laundry, among other mundane tasks. I was not doing myself any favors.  

“Jesus and the Woman at the Well” by He Qi

Today’s gospel– the Samaritan woman at the well encountering Jesus–made me remember this time of my life.  First of all, have you ever noticed that the story is dripping wet with details of her, yet we do not know her name?  This anonymity allows her to represent all of us; I felt like the Samaritan woman.  She snuck out when the coast was clear at off-peak times to the well. She snuck out so no one would see her–her wounds, her failure, her weakness, her humanity.  Just like the woman at the well with many husbands, I was held victim to these “husbands” of isolation and depression instead of seeking the one love, the one husband, who could free me: Jesus.

Despite trying to hide from others, the woman was noticed by someone:  Jesus. Her story was recognized and she was seen for who she was; she was able to “come out.”  This story highlights the desire for Jesus to come closer to us and allow us to be held close to His heart. It highlights a response to His action that we all could give: “I believe, with all my heart, that you, Jesus, are the way, the truth, and the life.”

When I work with those preparing for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, I always tell them that joining the Church is not solely a process of “becoming Catholic,” so as to be able to “check off a box” but a process of “coming out” and sharing with those in your world that you are on this faith journey to Jesus–that there is something about Him that captivates you, making Him irresistible to follow ever more closely.

Today’s gospel story is not so much about the woman believing in Christ but about the woman fulfilling her role in helping Jesus proclaim the gospel.  She reminds us that our baptism commits us to a life of discipleship.  These days, we might be “married” to the wrong love: drugs, alcohol, the thirst for power or money,  sex, or even control of the other.  Thus we can hear Jesus say, “the husband you have right now is not your own.”   It would help if we tried to answer the question: “How can we prioritize our lives so that Christ can be at the center?”

When we encounter the living Christ (in the sacraments or in our daily experiences) and we immerse ourselves in that encounter, we are bound to change.  And that change should hopefully bring us to discipleship.  Discipleship comes at a cost.  I am asked to be a better Christian, one who does not live on fear or anxiety.  A poor self-image–like the one held by the Samaritan woman or my younger self —does not reflect that I am a person loved by God.  A person who God loves is not alone and is not left without anything.

I’m still healing from my experiences.  The woman was free and told her people, “come and see someone who told me everything I did.”  I had people in my life that helped share my feelings and heal the chips on my shoulders.  They showed me the parts of myself that were hidden, that I myself had not admitted. This is another form of “coming out.”   

What are the things that you need to name freely for yourself and for Jesus?   Jesus does not want us to change our embarrassing pasts,  but to change our relationship with Him for the life of the world.  When the woman left that well, her outer appearance did not change: she was still a Samaritan, a woman, coming out to the well at an awkward time–and she still had her story.  But now, she was reoriented towards mission, whereas before she was simply scared and embarrassed.  

The Lenten Season’s call us to come out and deepen our conversion towards Jesus.  May we have the strength to take these steps so that we, like the villagers at the end of today’s gospel, can proclaim with our whole humanity – strengths and embarrassments – that Jesus is “truly the savior of the world.”

Reflection Questions:

What in your life still needs to come out? What in your life is in need of life-giving water?  Who are your “husbands”?  Who gets in the way of God, your one true love?

PS: In these next few Sundays of Lent, those who have been journeying in the Catechumenate process will be celebrating the Scrutiny Rites.  Please keep them, the Elect–those called by God for the Easter Sacraments–in your prayers that they too may experience life-giving water.

John Michael Reyes, March 19, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

Burning Bushes, Barren Fig Trees, and Us

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the Third Sunday of Lent are: Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15; Psalm 103: 1-4, 6-8, 11; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; and Luke 13:1-9. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

Problematic vegetation is the dominant imagery in today’s Scripture readings.  In the first reading, the well-known image of the burning bush, a plant on fire but not destroyed.  In the gospel passage, we hear of a fig tree which just won’t produce fruit and face the threat of being cut down. God is obviously a pretty showy and aggressive landscaper!

One theory (and there are many) about the symbolism of the burning bush that I have read is that it is a symbol of God’s justice and mercy.   The Bible often refers to God’s justice as an all-consuming power, but the fact that in this case the power is revealed but does not consume is taken to mean that God’s justice includes mercy.  This theory fits with the rest of the passage, which describes God’s willingness to show mercy to the suffering of the Hebrews in Egypt:

“I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt
and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers,
so I know well what they are suffering.
Therefore I have come down to rescue them
from the hands of the Egyptians
and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land,
a land flowing with milk and honey.”

I like this God.  This is a God who hears prayers and answers them as people expect they should be answered.  If you are someone who works for justice for LGBT people, this is probably the kind of God you hope to one day meet and experience–a God who acts justly and mercifully to people who are treated oppressively.

But what about the image of God in the gospel passage?  The image of God in the parable that Jesus tells is not as re-assuring as this previous image.  The Gospel image, perhaps surprisingly, appears to be an image of a God who is unforgiving of failure and impatient for results.  I’m glad I’m not a fig tree.

Wait. Maybe I am one.

I think the introduction to this parable contains some important guides for understanding the behavior of the orchard owner (God) in the parable.  In the first part of the reading, Jesus is upbraiding his followers for a behavior which I think is all-too-common among us humans, especially us humans who claim to have faith.  They have been badgering him with questions about why others have suffered calamities, hoping that the answer will be that these people who suffered were being punished for their sins.  And, of course, the implication of that answer is that those asking the question, who have not suffered, have obviously not been judged by God as sinners, allowing them to be self-satisfied.

Jesus will have none of it.  His answer–terrifyingly direct–is:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”

This seems to be such an important message for Jesus, that he repeats it almost verbatim.  God doesn’t punish people because of sin. God cannot be anything but just and merciful, kind and gracious, loving and forgiving, as today’s Psalm reminds us. But one thing God doesn’t like very much is people who feel self-satisfied and don’t repent.  God is not too fond of people who grumble about the sinfulness of others rather than focusing on repenting of their own sins.  The second reading warns us:

“Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall.”

Jesus uses the parable of the fig tree to illustrate God’s opportunities for us to repent, not a thirst for vengeance.  God wants the fig tree to grow and produce fruit. God gives it plenty of times (three years) and then offers a fourth year extension filled with care and fertilizer.  But if the fig tree does not cooperate, is that God’s responsibility?

I know that in my own work to promote justice for LGBT Catholics, I can often fall into the trap of self-satisfaction. We’re the good guys! Aren’t we?  Or are we?  Do we sometimes feel that because we think we are right that God is going to help us more–and in addition, throw in the smiting of those who oppose us, who we too-often think of as greater sinners than we are?  Gulp.  I’m afraid to answer those questions.

We need to do our work for LGBT justice in a spirit of humility, avoiding the trap of being so convinced of our own rightness that we start seeing those who oppose us as sinners, while we are on the side of the angels.

Our task is to rely on God and to repent of our own sins.  Our task is to rely on God’s justice and mercy to save us, not our own efforts. Our hope is in God, not in ourselves.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

Cleansing the Temple–and Our Bodies and Minds–of Idols

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the Third Sunday of Lent are: Exodus 20: 1-17; Psalm 19: 8-11; 1 Corinthians 1: 22-25; John 2: 13-25. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

Today’s Gospel reading is sometimes referred to as the “Cleansing of the Temple” and is an episode recorded by all four Gospel writers.  John the Evangelist says that Jesus “made a whip out of cords” and drove the money changers and animals out of the temple area.  I imagine Jesus might have shocked his friends and followers by acting in such a forceful way.  At the very least, his words and actions never fail to discomfort me.

Jesus is obviously upset by what he sees, but why?  Explanations are many and varied.  Some commentators suggest he was upset by the commercialization and economic exploitation occurring on temple grounds.  Others claim he was demonstrating his opposition to the Roman occupation of Jerusalem.  While these explanations have certain merits, I think there is a much more fundamental reason for Jesus’ anger:  idolatry.

Jesus’ actions are an amplification of the Exodus commandment that “You shall have no other gods besides me.”  He commands the people to “stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” – in other words, stop distracting people from God.  A lot more than commercial transactions occur in a marketplace.  People trade gossip, make dinner plans, talk about local politics, covet what they cannot afford, etc.  The buzz of activity in the temple area was not bringing people closer to God; to the contrary, their minds were so filled with distractions that God was forgotten.  This “soft” idolatry does not involve worshipping golden calves, but it is idolatry nonetheless because God is crowded out of our hearts by relatively trivial matters.

I recall a popular quote by Dorothy Day:  “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”  I think Dorothy was keenly aware of the many little “gods” that invade our lives each day and alienate us from our Creator.  Her revolution of the heart is nothing less than each of us rejoicing in what brings us closer to God and rejecting what pushes us farther away.  The challenge for us is taking the time and expending the effort to discern what does and does not lead us to fuller life with God.

I am consoled by John’s words that Jesus “did not need anyone to testify about human nature.  He himself understood it well.”  Jesus knows how hard it is to remain centered in God when surrounded by a world full of distractions.  He knows the challenges that we face by the commandment that shall put nothing ahead of God.

As you work for justice and equality for LGBT people in church and society, what are the distractions or idols that divert you from the work that needs to be done?  If you would like to share your thoughts with other readers, please post them in the “Comments” section of this post.

During our Lenten journey, may we confidently join Jesus, our brother in all things, in cleansing the temple of our minds and bodies from everything that distracts us from God.  It’s a big challenge, but one well worth trying.

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry