Every month, Connections offers stories, images, reflections and meditations relating to the themes of each Sunday’s readings.  Material comes from the evening news and the every day, from the stage and screen, from the music world and the marketplace – all designed to help homilists “connect” the world of Monday through Saturday with the Gospel proclaimed on Sunday.

To give you an idea of what Connections is all about, we’ve assembled the following sampling of stories, meditations and 'connecting' reflections from recent issues of Connections:

Sunday 18 / Pentecost 11 [August 5, 2018]
Sunday 19 / Pentecost 12 [August 12, 2018]
Sunday 20 / Pentecost 13 [August 19, 2018]
Sunday 21 / Pentecost 14 [August 26, 2018]

Sunday 22 / Pentecost 15 [September 2, 2018]
Sunday 23 / Pentecost 16 [September 9, 2018]
Sunday 24 / Pentecost 17 [September 16, 2018]
Sunday 25 / Pentecost 18 [September 23, 2018]
Sunday 26 / Pentecost 19 [September 30, 2018]

Please note that, in every issue of Connections, we offer TWO stories/meditations for each Sunday’s Gospel.

After reviewing this “electronic sampler,” if you’d like information on subscribing – or receiving the next complete issue of ConnectionsCLICK HERE for subscription information and an order form.


18th Sunday of the Year B / 10th Sunday after Pentecost B [PROPER 13]

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and who ever believes in me will never thirst.”
John 6: 24-35

Soup from heaven’s table

True story:  After lecturing at a Winnipeg university, a minister found himself stranded in a bus station during a surprise October snowstorm.  Cold and wet, he finally found a seat at the depot’s café counter.  A cranky, tired man in a greasy apron took his order — all they had was soup, one kind.  So the minister ordered the soup.  The gray goop was the worst thing he had ever eaten.  He wrapped his hands around the bowl — at least it kept his hands warm.

The door opened again, letting in the icy wind.  “Close the door!” somebody yelled.  In came a woman in a threadbare coat.  She took a seat not far from the minister.  The cranky man in the greasy apron took her order.  “Glass of water,” she mumbled.

He brought the water.  “Now, what do you want?”

“Just a glass of water and a chance to get warm.”

“Look, I have customers that pay — what do you think this is, a church or something?  If you’re not going to order, you’ve got to leave!” 

He got real loud about it.  So she got up to leave — and, as if rehearsed, everybody in that little café got up and started toward the door.  The minister got up and said to the man in the greasy apron, “I’m voting for something here; I don’t know what it is.” 

“All right, all right, all right,” the cranky man in the greasy apron said.  Everybody sat down again, and he brought her a bowl of soup.

The minister asked the person sitting next to him, “Who is she?”

“I never saw her in here before,” was the reply.

The place grew quiet; all that the minister heard was the sipping of that awful soup.  The minister decided to try it again and put his spoon into the bowl. 

“You know,” the minister said later, “it really wasn’t bad.  Everybody was eating the soup, and it was pretty good soup.  I have no idea what kind of soup it was.  I don’t know what was in it, but I do recall when I was eating it, it tasted a little bit like bread and wine.  Just a little like bread and wine.”

[From Craddock Stories by Fred Craddock.]

God’s compassion transforms even the vilest soup into the banquet of heaven and a group of stranded travelers into a community.  In the diners’ support of their “sister” in the bus depot, that poor soup became a sign of the “bread” that is Jesus, the “manna” that is God’s love in our midst.  This is the “bread of heaven” that Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel: selfless compassion, grace and gratitude — the food that will not perish, the food that nurtures all that is good, the food that sustains us on our journey to meaning and purpose.  

19th Sunday of the Year B / 12th Sunday after Pentecost B [PROPER 14]

“Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat and not die.”
John 6: 41-51

Manna for dinner — again?

Just about every parent has heard that whine:  Something new, something different, is served for dinner.  The child is suspicious of the color, the shape, the smell.  Are Mom and Dad trying to poison me?  The child looks up at the parent and, with a voice that could curl the dining room wallpaper, cries:  What IS this?  The parents wish they had simply ordered pizza – again.

During the Exodus, the Israelites whined the same way to Moses (“murmured” is the word used in Scripture):  Why did we leave Egypt?  We were slaves there but at least there was food.  Now we’re in the middle of nowhere with nothing to eat.  We’re going to die out here.  Moses’ approval numbers quickly sank.

So God provided Moses and his fellow travelers “manna” to eat.  Scripture describes manna “as a fine, white flake-like thing.”  Early each day, Israelite families would gather about two quarts of manna and grind it to bake it into cakes.  As the sun rose higher in the sky as the day wore on, the remaining manna would evaporate.

Many scientists think that these “flakes” were formed from honeydew secreted by a certain insect that fed on the sap of tamarisk trees (yum!).  In the dry desert air, most of the moisture in the honeydew quickly evaporated, leaving sticky droplets of the stuff on plants and the ground.

Since the Exodus, manna became the living symbol of God’s providence and love for the Jewish people.

By the way, the word manna comes from Hebrew.  Manna literally means What is this?

Manna is both the question and the answer:  What is this?  Manna is the manifestation of God in our midst.  Manna is generosity and kindness; manna is consolation and support; manna is the constant, unconditional love of family and friends.  Manna is food for our own journeys to God.  God sends us manna in many forms every day of our lives; the challenge of faith is to trust in God enough to look for manna, to collect it before it disappears, and to consume it and be consumed by it.  May we find the manna that God rains down lovingly each morning of our lives; may Christ, the new manna, be our bread and drink on our own exoduses to the dwelling place of God.  

20th Sunday of the Year B / 13th Sunday after Pentecost B [PROPER 15]

“My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”
John 6: 51-58

Mass in the midst of it all

Every weekday at noon, a small group of teachers and staff gather in the college chapel for Mass.  But for a few weeks, while repairs were being made to the college chapel, the Mass was moved to a small dormitory chapel.  It took a while for some of the “regulars” to find it: making their way up the old stairs, past the soda and candy machines and the rows of doors with every kind of music blasting from behind them.

Fourteen gathered this particular noon, including a guide dog who sat at attention throughout the entire liturgy, and a small child of two or three, who never took her eyes off the miracle at the altar.  Usually scattered throughout the larger church, they were now seated together in a circle around the altar. 

A great thing about Mass being celebrated in a crowded college dormitory, one communicant wrote, “is that you hear the seething life of the hall thrumming overhead and burbling faintly through the doors and windows; not until yesterday had I enjoyed a Mass during which I heard reggae music, and the samba of washing machines, and an argument about the Satanic nature of the Los Angeles Lakers, and what sounded like a skateboard being ridden down a staircase at high speed.  All these sounds were gentle, and did not obtrude on the music of the Mass, but somehow having the murmured soundtrack of youth in the background as we celebrated the miracles deepened the experience, added a little more of the salt and song of life to an event too often ossified as mere ritual, and what could be more beautifully human and holy than sitting over food and telling stories and insisting on miracles, in the company of a child and a dog?”

[From “A Mass” by Brian Doyle, U.S. Catholic, February 2012.]

This dormitory Mass is a wonderful image of today’s Gospel.  Christ comes to us as living bread – not a remote ritual or a sacred artifact to be adored behind a locked door, but as real bread that brings us together in the midst of the busyness of our lives, real bread that nurtures the love of God in the midst of the music that “rocks” our lives.  May the bread and wine we receive at this table on this day make us the “body” of Christ with and for one another; in his “blood” of the new covenant that he gives us to drink here, may his life of compassion, justice and selflessness flow within us, enabling us to become what we have received: the sacrament of unity, peace and reconciliation.  

21st Sunday of the Year B / 14th Sunday after Pentecost B [PROPER 16]

Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
Simon Peter answered Jesus, “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”
John 6: 60-6

Walking the labyrinth

A group of pilgrims were visiting Chartres Cathedral and its great labyrinth: the circular walkway outlined on the church floor that pilgrims and penitents have prayerfully “walked” for centuries. 

An older man and woman stood near the entrance watching visitors slowly and walk the labyrinth.  Then the woman took off her shoes and handed them, with her purse, to her husband.  As he watched, she began to walk the intricate path.  She cried as she walked; he cried watching her.  When they pulled themselves together, they explained to a concerned onlooker that they had come to Chartres to celebrate the end of the woman’s treatment from breast cancer.  They had never heard of a labyrinth before they walked into the cathedral that day.  She could not explain why she was drawn to walk it, but when she did her husband decided to hold down the center, giving thanks for her life while she made her way out of the labyrinth.

“I began to feel at peace with my body again after being very angry that it had let me down,” the woman explained.  As she walked, she found herself remembering all the people who had walked with her through her surgery and treatment. 
“I now know why we came.”

[From An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor.]

After all the fear and pain and anguish this couple experienced, they re-discover, as they walk the labyrinth, that God is the ultimate source of everything that is good and that that good will, eventually, rise up over evil and sin and death.  Despite our own doubts, fears and misgivings, we know in the depth of our hearts that, in the end, the words of Jesus will prevail.  Though God seems absent in times of pain, change and despair, we trust that we can rediscover God in acts of love, support and healing extended to us by others.  Peter’s conviction in God’s mercy and compassion resonates with all of us who have experienced, in times of crisis and catastrophe, that compassion in the love and support of family and friends.  Let Jesus’ “words of eternal life” be the light that illuminates our own daily “labyrinth” walk; may they be the wisdom that guides us on our journey — sometimes lonely and dangerous — to the dwelling place of God.  

22nd Sunday of the Year / 15th Sunday after Pentecost [PROPER 17]

”Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

To accept or refuse

Many years ago, a great warrior abandoned his life of war and destruction and became a monk, happily living a quiet life serving his brothers and the poor and sick of the villages around the monastery.

One day, an arrogant warrior rode through the village.  He terrorized the villagers with his threats and demands.  He soon made his way to the monastery where he recognized the monk from their adventures years before. The reckless warrior did everything he could to provoke his old adversary into a fight: the boor threw rocks, shouted insults, smashing parts of the poor monastery.  But the monk would not respond.  By dusk, the warrior finally grew tired of the game; he defiantly spat on the monastery door and rode off.

Some of the villagers who had been brutalized by the warrior, asked the monk why he did not confront the intruder.

“If someone offers you a gift and you do not accept it, to whom does the gift belong?” the old monk asked.

“He who offered it,” they replied.

“The same is true for anger, envy and ridicule,” the monk explained.  “When they are not accepted, they forever belong to the one who holds on to them.”

[Adapted from the Moral Stories website.]

In the hurts, indignities and injustices perpetrated against us, what is often worse than the act itself is what the act does to us as persons: we respond with suspicion, cynicism, self-absorption, anger, vengeance.  One of the most difficult challenges of being a disciple of Jesus is not to let those things “outside” of us diminish what we are “inside” ourselves, not to let such anger or vengeance displace the things of God in the sacred place of our hearts but to let God’s presence transform the evil that we have encountered into compassion and forgiveness.   

23rd Sunday of the Year / 23rd Sunday after Pentecost [PROPER 18]

Jesus put his finger into the man's ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!” -- that is, “Be opened!”
Mark 7: 31-37

Listening ‘funny’ . . .

A mother was planning a birthday party for her six-year-old son.  She wanted to protect him from the social consequences of inviting Jason, an unpopular child, to the party.  Jason stuttered, so he was constantly teased, often cruelly.

But Mom realized that her son had to make the decision on his own.

Mom was pleasantly surprised to discover that her son not only could take care of himself but also stick up for his friend.

When other boys at the party started making fun of Jason, her son confronted them, saying:  “He doesn't talk funny.  You listen funny.”

[Kathleen Chesto.]

We often listen "funny."  Fear and ignorance often distort our ability not only to hear but also to see the good in the midst of bad, the reasons to hope in the midst of despair.  The words Jesus speaks to the deaf man in today's Gospel – “Ephphatha” – are spoken to us, as well: that our hearts and spirits be “opened” to accepting God's love from those who are “different” and “uncool”; that our hearts and spirits be “opened” to realizing God's presence in times and places that make us squirm; that our hearts and spirits be “opened” to realizing God's grace despite our difficulty to trust, to accept, to understand.

24th Sunday of the Year / 17th Sunday after Pentecost [PROPER 19]

Along the way, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?”  Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ . . . ”
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.   For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
Mark 8: 27-35

The church downstairs

The pastor calls it the “church downstairs.”  They have a good problem: they need more chairs.

For years, Alcoholic Anonymous has met in the church hall every day of the week, sometimes twice a day.  The supportive pastor started thinking of those meetings as the “church downstairs” after a new parishioner told him how she came to join the parish after first going “downstairs” for several months.

The priest occasionally sits in on the meetings and it has helped him understand what it means to be “church.”  Three things about AA have struck him: 

First, there is a “genuine and low-key sense” of welcoming.  But it is not simply a matter of a designated greeter shaking every new hand.  In fact, “AA is at its most hospitable after the meeting is over.  No one is bolting for the door when the last word is pronounced.  Instead, people stay around for another cup of coffee, especially if someone new has joined them.”

The second thing the pastor has noticed is how the “church downstairs” rallies around the weak, the powerless, and the hurting.  “Even those some might relegate to the social fringe are met with acceptance in the group, not least because a common denominator — We are all powerless over alcohol — remains central.”

And the third thing that Alcoholics Anonymous groups demonstrate so well, the pastor admires, is “the belief that everyone has a story to tell and a right to be heard.  This belief is essential not only to the Twelve Steps, but to the sense of commonality and communion that is generated in the group.  Everyone can learn something from another person’s story . . . ”

Welcoming strangers.  Lifting the weak and struggling.  Listening to what everyone has to say.  Maybe that’s why they need more chairs at the “church downstairs.”

[From “The Church Downstairs: What Catholics Can Learn from Alcoholics Anonymous” by Father Nonomen, Commonweal, July 13, 2012.]

This is what Christ calls us to be as a church: a community that readily takes up our own crosses in order to help others bear up theirs; a family of brothers and sisters who instinctively put aside their own individual needs and hurts to bring healing and hope to the other members of the family.  In being members of such a faith community, we answer the question that Jesus poses in today’s Gospel; every decision we make, every action we take, proclaims who we believe this Jesus is and what his Gospel means to us.  Sometimes our answering that question demands that we put aside our own concerns, needs and fears, to say to ourselves and confess to the world:  You are the Christ; You are the Anointed One God has sent to teach us his way of humble gratitude, joyful service, and just peace.  

25th Sunday of the Year / 18th Sunday after Pentecost [PROPER 20] 

“If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be last and the servant of all . . .
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”
Mark 9: 30-37

Grading the final exam

On the final exam in a psychology course taught last spring at the University of Maryland, this was the final question:

Select whether you want 2 points or 6 points added to your final grade.  But there’s a small catch:  If more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points.

How would you have answered?

Well, 20 percent of the students selected 6 points so, true, to his word, the professor gave no extra credit to any of his students.

What was the point?  More than just a lesson in self-interest.  The course instructor, Dr. Dylan Selterman, explains that the question, originally published in a psychology journal 25 years ago, is intended to illustrate what is called in psychology “the tragedy of the commons.”  Dr. Selterman explains:

“[The tragedy of the commons is] basically a dilemma between doing what’s good for you as an individual versus doing what’s best for the group.  Now it stands to reason that people behave selfishly. But if too many people behave selfishly, the group will suffer . . . and then everyone in the group individually will suffer.”

In the seven years he has put the question on his final exam, Dr. Selterman says that, almost without fail, self-interest trumps the common good.  Only one class — his fall 2011 group — has received the extra credit, but he speculates that it may have merely been a fluke.  “In behavioral science, nothing is ever 100%,” he says.

Dr. Selterman believes that most students select the six-point option by way of a “go big or go home” mentality.  Others, he says, may do it out of fear of being slighted.

“The extra credit question is analogous to any public resource in the world that we would all use, like food or water or land.  Again, if people are mindful of their own consumption, then it’s fine, but if too many people are selfish, then we have now — like in California — water shortages.”

Dr. Selterman says he hopes his students at least walk away from his course with a sense “that their actions affect others and vice versa and, going forward, whenever they work in groups or whenever they interact with others in their community, that they carefully consider these things, these mechanisms, and that they work together constructively with others.  I would hope that any student who chose six points would, in the future, think twice about the selfish option and think about what’s best for the group and — by extension — what’s best for them.”

Students have asked him to modify the question so only those who choose six points get penalized, but he said that would be missing the point.

“In reality, if too many people overuse a common resource then everyone in the group suffers, not just the selfish ones,” he notes. “This is what I want students to learn from the exercise.  Their actions affect others, and vice versa.”

[USA Today, July 17, 2015; ABC News, July 14, 2015.]

Dr. Selterman’s final is an object lesson in Christian discipleship.  We are often more than willing to sacrifice the common good for our own self-interest; we measure the severity of a problem solely by its impact on us; we seek how to manipulate the misfortune of others to our advantage.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus challenges us to seek the greatness of being last, the authority of being the servant to others, the power of advocating for justice for the poor and victimized.  It is how we learn compassion; it is how we become responsible adults and contributing members of society; it is how we find meaning and purpose in our lives.  Jesus challenges all who would be his disciples to put another’s hopes and dreams ahead of our own, to seek to bring forth and affirm the gifts of others for no other reason than the common good, to seek reconciliation and community at all costs.  In doing so, we make the crosses we bear vehicles of resurrection, transforming our homes and hearts in God’s reconciliation, peace and compassion.  

26th Sunday of the Year / 19th Sunday after Pentecost [PROPER 21] 

John said to Jesus:  “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”
Jesus replied, “There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me . . .  Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
Mark 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48

Us vs. them

We all approach life pretty much the same way:

There’s us — and there’s them.

We’re all right.  They’re not.

We’re justifiably concerned for our family’s livelihood.  They’re in it for the money.

We’re resting.  They’re self-indulgent.

We’re pragmatic.  They’re manipulative.

We’re teasing.  They’re mean-spirited.

We know the truth.  They don’t understand; they’re ill-informed.

We’re concerned for the common good.  They’re out to grab whatever they can get.

Don’t ever question our good intentions, our values, our patriotism.  But watch out for them.

You can trust us — but be afraid of them.

We welcome all — with our doors locked.

We’re all created equal — but some of us are more equal than others.

We are all children of God — but we’re God’s favorites.

We’re the people of God — we pray for them.

In admonishing John in today’s Gospel, Jesus is calling for an end to the us- vs.-them perspective of the world; Jesus comes to build his Father’s kingdom, a community based on generosity, humility, respect and understanding for all, by all.  We may not think of ourselves as perfect, but we do (however unconsciously) consider our perspective of the world and our own belief and value systems to be the standards that others would be wise to embrace.  To “act in Jesus’ name,” however, means to reach out to all without condition, without prejudice, without judgment.  Thomas Merton put it this way:  “As soon as you begin to take yourself seriously and imagine that your virtues are important because they are yours, you become the prisoner of your own vanity, and even your best works will blind and deceive you.  And the more unreasonable importance you attach to yourself and your work, the more you will tend to build up your own idea of yourself by condemning other people.  Sometimes virtuous people are also bitter and unhappy because they unconsciously believe that their happiness depends on their being more virtuous than others.”