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:

14th Sunday of the Year / Fifth Sunday after Pentecost  [July 5, 2020]
15th Sunday of the Year / Sixth Sunday after Pentecost  [July 12, 2020]
16th Sunday of the Year / Seventh Sunday after Pentecost  [July 19, 2020]
17th Sunday of the Year / Eighth Sunday after Pentecost  [July 26, 2020]

18th Sunday of the Year / Ninth Sunday after Pentecost  [August 2, 2020]
19th Sunday of the Year / Tenth Sunday after Pentecost  [August 9, 2020]
20th Sunday of the Year / 11th Sunday after Pentecost  [August 16, 2020]
21st Sunday of the Year / 12th Sunday after Pentecost  [August 23, 2020]
22nd Sunday of the Year / 13th Sunday after Pentecost  [August 30, 2020]

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.

Enjoy!  


14th Sunday of the Year [A] / Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 9A]

“You have hidden these things from the wise and the learned and have revealed them to little ones . . .
“Take my yoke and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart . . . ”
Matthew 11: 25-30

The Gospel of service

One of the “saints” of the Zen religion is a priest named Tetsugen, who was the first to translate the holy books of his faith into Japanese.

Many years ago the priest sought to print several thousand copies of the books in order to make the texts of Japan’s religion available to everyone.  He traveled the length and breadth of Japan to raise the money for the printing.  Rich and poor alike donated to the project.  The priest expressed equal gratitude to each donor, whether their gift amounted to hundreds of pieces of gold or a few pennies.

After ten long years, Tetsugen had enough money for the printing. But just as the making of the holy books was about to begin, the river Uji overflowed its banks, leaving thousands of people without food and shelter.  The priest halted the project immediately and used all of the money he worked so hard to raise to help the hungry and homeless.

Then Tetsugen began the work of raising the funds all over again.  It took another ten years of travel and begging before he collected the money he needed to publish the holy book.  But an epidemic spread across the country.  Again the priest gave away all he had collected to care the sick, the suffering and dying.

A third time Tetsugen set out on his travels and, twenty years later, his dream of having the holy books printed in Japanese was finally realized.

The printing blocks that produced the first edition are on display at the Obaku Monastery in Kyoto.  The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen actually published three editions of the holy book – the first two are invisible but far superior to the third.

Jesus invites us to embrace the joyful sense of fulfillment that can only be realized by “learning” from his example of humility and gratitude, to take on his ‘yoke’ of humble, joyful service to one another as we journey together to the dwelling place of God.  Like Tetsugen, we proclaim the Gospel most effectively and meaningfully not in words but in the generosity and compassion we extend to others.  In our work for justice, in our dedication to reconciliation, in our welcome to all approach our tables, we make the word of God of a living reality in our own time and place.  


15th Sunday of the Year [A] / Sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 10A]

“A sower went out to sow.  Some of the seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up . . . Other seed fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”
Matthew 13: 1-23

Love is more than a rose . . .

Don’t let anyone tell you that love is a rose.

Love is a weed.  It grows wild.  It flourishes where it is trampled; it multiplies where it is ripped from the ground.  Its roots grow deeper through suffering, stronger through storms.

Don’t believe that love is a beautiful flower.

Love is a cactus.  It thrives in the most barren places.  It collects the precious water of the desert and willingly sheds its tough skin to offer a drink to the thirsty traveler.

Don’t look for love in the colors of nature, in the freshness of spring, or in sunrises and sunsets.

Love is the old tree that gives its wood for warmth and its fruit for food.  It welcomes into its branches ever bird of the sky; it shelters every animal of the wood.  It gives everything it has — and keeps giving as its roots give birth to new trees that take on the God-like work of giving.

Love is the unwelcome rain that fills every creek and stream.

Love is the dark earth that nurtures every root to harvest.

Love is the seed that dies to become something greater than itself.

Don’t get carried away with romantic notions of love.

Love is as real as dirt, as generous as water, as giving as seed.

[Adapted from Believing It All: What My Children Taught Me About Trout Fishing, Jelly Toast, and Life by Marc Parent.]

Sowing seed is an act of pure faith; seed sown mirrors the love of the Gospel Christ: seed that is scattered, that breaks itself open to realize the harvest within it, that struggles to survive the most barren soil to provide food and shelter for every creature.  Jesus challenges us in the parable of the sower to be both sower and seed: to sow seeds of encouragement, joy and reconciliation regardless of the “ground” on which it is scattered, and to imitate the seed’s  selfless giving of self that becomes the harvest of Gospel justice and mercy.  


16th Sunday of the Year [A] / Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11A]

“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field.  While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat . . .
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed . . . the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants . . .
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.”
Matthew 13: 24-43

My Grandfather’s Blessings

In her book My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging, physician Rachel Naomi Remen tells of the many unusual gifts she received from her beloved grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi and scholar.

Once, when she was four, her grandfather brought her a paper cup.  She expected to find something special inside.  It was full of dirt.  Rachel was not allowed to play with dirt. Disappointed, she told her grandfather that she wasn’t allowed to play with dirt.  Her grandfather smiled.  He took her little teapot from her doll’s tea set and took little Rachel to the kitchen where it filled it with water.  He put the little cup on a windowsill in her room and handed her the teapot.  “If you promise to put some water in this cup every day, something may happen,” he told her.

This made little sense to a four-year-old, but little Rachel promised.  “Every day,” he repeated.  At first, Rachel did not mind pouring water into the cup, but as the days went on and nothing happened, it became harder and harder to remember to do it.  After a week, she asked her grandfather if it was time to stop yet.  Grandfather shook his head.  “Every day,” he repeated.

The second week it became even harder, but Grandfather held her to her promise:  “Every day.”  Sometimes she would only remember about the water after she went to bed and would have to get up in the middle of the night and water it in the dark.  But, in the end, Rachel did not miss a single day of watering.

Then, one morning three weeks later, there were two little green leaves that had not been there the night before.  Rachel was completely astonished.  She could not wait to tell her grandfather, certain that he would be as surprised as she was -- but, of course, he wasn’t.  Carefully he explained to his beloved granddaughter that life is everywhere, hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places.

Rachel was delighted. “And all it needs is water, Grandpa?”

Gently, he touched her on the top of her head.  “No, dear Rachel.  All it needs is your faithfulness.”

Faith is the ability to see the potential in the smallest of things and the courage and perseverance to unlock that potential.  Humanity’s dreams of peace, community and justice will be realized, first, in the everyday acts of such goodness of each one of us.  Such is “mustard seed” faith: that, from the smallest and humblest acts of justice, kindness and compassion, the kingdom of God will take root.  


17th Sunday of the Year [A] /Eighth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 12A]

When it was evening, the disciples approached Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”
Jesus said, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourself.”
Taking the five loaves and two fish, and looking up to heaven, Jesus said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.
Matthew 14: 13-21

Group dynamics

It happens in every parish:

The pastor has a new project in mind – a religious education program for teenagers, a Thanksgiving dinner for the poor, a food and clothing collection for the local shelter.  The pastor then approaches parishioners to help out.  It’s tough sledding: people are very protective of their time, they're not sure this is something they want to do or are comfortable being involved with, they doubt they have the abilities and patience necessary for this kind of work.  But, eventually, a group of volunteers – however reluctant – comes together.

And then, without fail, a remarkable thing happens.  Once the folks see the importance of what they are doing, they become transformed by the realization of the good they are doing and can do.  Their reluctance gives way to fresh optimism and enthusiasm; their doubts disappear in a new spirit of “anything is possible.”  Holding back at the beginning, they are ready to devote whatever time and skills and money necessary to see the project through.  The volunteers are caught up in the joy of doing good.

They have become a community.

They are church.

What happens in today’s Gospel is such an experience of church.  Jesus transforms a gathering of many different people who become one in their need, one in the bread they share, one in the love of Christ who has brought them together.  Taking the few pieces of bread and fish they can collect, Christ works a miracle.  Christ empowers each one of us to perform our own miracles of creating community when we give of our time and resources to take on the work of the Gospel: feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, seeking out the lost and forgotten, teaching to all the good news that God is our loving Father.


18th Sunday of the Year [A] / Ninth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 13A]

Taking the five loaves and two fish, and looking up to heaven, Jesus said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.
Matthew 14: 13-21

A storyteller’s loaves and fish

The late Brian Doyle was one of the most gifted storytellers and spiritual writers of our time.  He authored several books of essays and poems, including two novels, Mink River and Chicago.

As it was for so many, the horrors of September 11, 2001 were especially devastating to Doyle.  Three good friends died in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.  A few days after 9/11, a magazine called and asked Doyle to contribute to a special issue.  He declined.  That evening, he explained to his wife, Mary, “I said no, because what is there is say?  I am not adding to the ocean of witless commentary and vengeful rant.  The only thing to do is pray in whatever language and to whatever mercy you pray to, ideally silently, because if ever silence was eloquent now is the time.”

That’s when his eight-year-old daughter asked, “But, Dad, what are you going to do if you don’t write anything? 

“Dad, no offense, but you are always lecturing us about how if God gives you a tool, and you don’t use that tool, that’s a sin, and Dad, no offense, but you only have the one tool.  You say this yourself all the time, you say you stink at everything else except catching and sharing stories, so if you are not going to catch and share stories, isn’t that a sin?  Actually, isn’t that three sins, because three of your friends were murdered?  Isn’t that right?”

Brian Doyle wrote that his daughter’s question was life-changing for him.

“I think sometimes now that for me there was my life before that moment, when I was a writer intent on writing well and being published and selling books and earning a little extra cash so we could almost break even as a family, and there was after that moment, when I saw that my real work was to tell bigger stories than the thugs and liars of the world . . . Can we use humor and imagination as the most astounding weapons ever?  Can I, can we, catch and share stories of defiant grace and unthinkable courage and unimaginable forgiveness?  I think maybe so.  I think maybe so.  And I think maybe so because in my kitchen a child looked up at me and called me out of my old self into a new one.”

[From “After” by Brian Doyle, published in C21 Resources, Fall 2016, published by the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College.]

When confronted by his disciples with the need to feed the crowds, Jesus first challenges them to give something from what they have.  At first the disciples say, “We have nothing.”  But they manage to scrape together a few pieces of bread and fish — and with that, Jesus works a miracle.  Whatever pieces of bread and fish we have and are willing to give for the good of others, God can take and transform them into something good and healing and affirming.  As Brian Doyle’s eight-year-old daughter challenges him to use his skills as a writer and storyteller to bring a measure of grace to the devastated of 9/11, Jesus challenges us to give of our “nothing” with faith that God can transform our “scraps” into manifestations of his loving presence in our midst.  


19th Sunday of the Year [A] / Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 14A]

When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the sea, they were terrified.  “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
When Peter saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Matthew 14: 22-33

“Why do you doubt?”

A nurse returned from a month-long stint serving a volunteer in a mobile clinic in Haiti.  Once back home, she asked to meet with her parish’s pastoral council.  She talked excitedly about her trip and passionately about the needs of the Haitian people.  She showed pictures of the people she met and served — including a small church where the clinic set up shop.  “Do you think we could adopt that church?” she proposed.  Everyone thought it would be a wonderful thing to do — but the parish’s budget was already tight, numbers were down, and what did any of them know about Haiti?  But three members of the council offered to work with her to see what they could do.  And before long, the little Haitian mission became their sister parish, bringing a new sense of meaning and fulfillment to both communities.  Why did you doubt? 

He arrives at the hospital, having driven three hours from school.  He takes the elevator to her floor and arrives at her room.  He stops just short of the doorway.  He can’t bring himself to go in.  What if he says something dumb — or he freezes up altogether and says nothing?  What if she’s tired, what if she’s in pain, what if she doesn’t recognize him?  What if he can’t hold it together?  He paces for several minutes trying to work up the courage to go into her room.  A nurse walks by.  “Are you Clara’s grandson?  She’s going to be delighted to see you!”  And before he realizes it he is swept into her room by the nurse.  His grandmother appears to be asleep.  “Grandma?” he whispers.  She turns her head and, seeing him, her face lights up.  And they talk and laugh for the next hour.  Why did you doubt?

School starts in a few weeks — and she’s not ready for this.  No, she’s not a student.  She’s a teacher.  This is her first year with her own class, something’s she worked hard for six years.  She spends hours and hours making lesson plans, going to workshops, reading and re-reading the year’s material.  She doesn’t sleep the night before.  On the first morning, the bell rings and her third-graders come scurrying into her classroom.  She settles everyone in, then takes a deep breath.  “Good morning, everyone.  I’m Miss Harrington.  Welcome to the third grade!”  And the 20 smiling faces looking up at her assures her that it will be a great year.  And it is.  Why did you doubt?

What happens to the parish council, to the grandson, to the new teacher, what happens to Peter in today’s Gospel, happens to all of us at one time or another:  We panic.  We don’t trust ourselves to know what the right thing is or our ability to do it.  But, somehow, God reaches out and catches us — if we’re willing to put aside our fears and try to do as Jesus would do, trusting in God’s grace to realize that good.  Today’s Gospel challenges us to trust our understanding of discipleship and our ability to live our baptisms.  Christ, in turn, promises to make his presence known to us, to hold us up and support us as we make our way through life’s most turbulent waters and “walk on water” for the good of the kingdom of God.  


20th Sunday of the Year [A] / 11th Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15A]

A Canaanite woman came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Matthew 15: 21-28

“We are never among strangers . . . ”

Many years ago, in a Thailand village, a Buddhist woman named Malai became a Christian at the request of her husband.  The village’s strict and overly scrupulous priest at the time, a missionary, told Malai that she must never again go inside a Buddhist temple because that would give people the impression that she was not a sincere Christian. 

Her elderly mother continued to practice Buddhism.  Malai would take her mother to the temple gate, but faithful to the injunction of her pastor, she had to ask strangers to take her mother inside the temple itself and help her light the incense sticks and worship.  In Thai society, to take care of one’s elders was a sacred responsibility.  It broke Malai’s heart that she had to rely on the kindness of strangers to assist her mother and could not help her herself.  But she obeyed her pastor.

One day while waiting for her mother to return from going inside the temple on the arm of a stranger, Malai began to cry.  A Buddhist nun who was sweeping the forecourt of the temple saw her.  The nun stopped her sweeping and gently took Malai’s arm.  The nun asked what was wrong.  Malai explained that as a Christian she could not go inside the temple to assist her elderly mother as she prayed.  The nun stared for some time at the ground and then responded:

“Those who recognize the Holy and are moved to worship it, are never among strangers, no matter what their religion happens to be.  And those who are moved by the Holy to be compassionate are already one family.  Do not let your heart be so troubled . . . Mercy has given you the opportunity to allow someone else to perform an act of compassion towards your mother.  Is that not beautiful?”

[As told by John Beeching, M.M., in Maryknoll, November-December 2016.]

Malai’s encounter with the Buddhist nun mirrors the Canaanite woman’s exchange with Jesus.  In our common search for God in our lives, the labels and stereotypes that separate different classes and religions collapse; the search for meaning and purpose — what the Buddhist nun calls “the Holy” — transforms “strangers” into a community and “family” dedicated to the good of all.  Just as the wisdom of the Buddhist nun transforms Malai’s perspective of those who help her mother, Jesus’ compassion for the Canaanite woman and his healing of her daughter breaks down the wall between Gentile and Jew.  The call to discipleship demands that we look beyond labels and stereotypes to realize that every one of us is a child of God, brothers and sisters all.  


21st Sunday of the Year [A] / 12th Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16A]

Jesus said to his disciples, “Who do you say I am?”  Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah . . . you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church . . . ”
Matthew 16: 13-20

The only thing Kelli could offer

Kelli was a third-year medical student, on a rotation in oncology.  This particular day she was not her usual enthusiastic, upbeat self.  She was having doubts. 

“The only thing I have to offer is my compassion,” she confided to her supervisor.   “But now I wonder what my words can mean as I look at Sheila.  It’s all overwhelming.  I’m not sure I can keep doing this.”

Kelli’s supervisor understood; her doubts are an occupational hazard for doctors and nurses who treat the terminally ill. 

But over the next month, Kelli had several opportunities to practice her “only” contribution.
 
Sheila was the 35-year-old mother of four whose husband, Michael, was a nurse at Kelli’s hospital.  A persistent bout of “walking pneumonia” was finally diagnosed as metastic lung cancer.  Sheila began a demanding protocol of chemotherapy.  Sheila was able to share with Kelli the full range of emotions common to all who struggled with cancer: fear, anger, sadness, joy at small successes, and gratitude.  Kelli’s innate kindness and approachability helped Sheila get through those difficult weeks.

Another of Kelli’s patients was being treated for a condition called bronchiectasis.  Quite unexpectedly, his cough worsened and he went into respiratory distress, requiring him to be put on a ventilator.  The poor man was terrified as the medical team went to work.  Kelli stayed with him the whole time and explained every step of the procedure.
 
“Now, Mr. Bernard, I know this tube is uncomfortable, but we need it to help you breathe.  Hold my hand.  I’ll stay with you.”  And she did until he was settled and comfortable in the intensive care unit. 

Sheila’s husband, Michael, was on duty in ICU when Kelli and Mr. Bernard arrived.
Later in the day, at the end of rounds, Kelli and the other students were meeting with the supervising physician to review the day.  During the conversation, Michael poked his head into the room.

“Is Sheila alright?” the doctor asked, fearing the worst.

Michael seemed shaken and didn’t speak for a long time.

“I just wanted to tell you,” he began, “all of you, how much Sheila and I appreciate the care she’s getting.  It’s not just the medical stuff.  I mean that’s important, and we know she’s getting the best medical treatment available.  But’s it’s the way you take care of her — and me — that makes it so different.”

He then turned to Kelli.  “I was watching you hold that man’s hand.  I listened as you talked to him and I tell you, do you know how long it’s been since I’ve held anyone’s hand in there, or thought about how it must feel to be on one of those things . . . I want you to know, Kelli, that you, and each of you, have reminded me of something I had long forgotten.  And I won’t forget again to comfort those I take care of.”

Sometimes compassion — the only thing we can offer — is the most important and remembered gift we give.

[From “Regaining Compassion” by James W. Lynch, Jr., M.D., Journal of the American Medical Association, May 13, 1998.]

Kelli has learned that compassion is the “rock” of her work as a physician.  It is on that same “rock” that Jesus establishes his church, a community of men and women whose lives mirror the love, peace and justice of God.  In taking on God’s work of reconciliation, in our struggle to forgive selflessly and humbly, in our often less-than-successful attempts to imitate the compassion of Jesus, our church and parish reflect the face of God to our world.  


22nd Sunday of the Year [A] / 13th Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 17A]

Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord!  No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.  You are an obstacle to me.  You are thinking not as God does but as human beings do.”
“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 will find it.”
Matthew 16: 21-27

Expanding the cast of your life’s “play”

In his book Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned about Life, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner tells of a meeting with a member of his congregation. 

“Rabbi, tell me why I should go on living.”

Rabbi Kushner did not know the woman well — she and her husband were occasional worshippers at the synagogue.  There were no medical issues or financial problems; her two sons were grown, but neither had a serious girlfriend, so no weddings were in the offing; she had had a job until a couple of years before but had been laid off. 

“It’s just that I feel that most of the nice things that will ever happen to me have already happened and that I have nothing to look forward to.”

The rabbi struggled with how to respond.  Clearly, she was bored — but he couldn’t tell her that.  He had counselled the chronically ill, the seriously injured, and the dying with reasons to wake up every morning and look forward to the new day.  But he had never counseled someone who didn’t want to go on living because she found life boring.

Rabbi Kushner writes:

“I pointed out that if her life was lacking in drama, it might be because she was operating with a limited cast of characters: herself, a husband, and two children.  She had spoken about her husband and two sons, but were there no other family members, no friends, no organizations she belonged to . . . ? 

“‘The other thing that concerned me about what you said to me,’ I told her, ‘was it was all about what other people were or not doing for you, and that is something you don’t have a lot of control over.  I didn’t hear anything about what you were doing with or for others, yet that might be the exact thing to start changing, the easiest way to feel better about your life.

“‘I’ve been a rabbi a long time,’ I told her.  ‘I’ve dealt with a lot of people who were hurting — women whose husbands had died or had left their marriage, people grieving the death of a child or the loss of a job, people whose deteriorating health left them unable to do the things they once enjoyed.  In every case, I gave them one rule and it almost always worked: the best way to feel better about yourself is to find someone to help . . .

“‘You came here,’ I told the woman in my office, ‘asking why you should go on living.  I can’t give you a compelling answer.  I can only give you advice born of my own experience, which has probably been very different than yours.  But I can tell you this with one hundred percent confidence:  Stick with life, let more people into your life, learn to care for them.  Leave them grateful for having known you . . . ”

Rabbi Kushner doesn’t know how the story ended.  He stepped down from his position as rabbi not long after that.  He never heard from her or about her since, “but at least I didn’t see the woman’s name on an obituary page.”

“If I were presented with the same challenge again, I would give the same answer.  The best cure for feeling down on your own life is to reach out to help someone else.  I’ve never known it to fail.  And the best prescription for adding joy to your own life is to share your life with others.  You will increase the happiness of your own life by sharing their happy times in addition to your own.”

Christ urges us to “lose” that part of our life that is centered in ephemeral, perishable things so that we may “gain” lives grounded in the love of God: to lose our anger, our disappointment, our need for control in order to find meaning and purpose in doing for others and contributing to the common good.  In “dying” to ourselves we become something greater; in letting go of the temporary and the fleeting we become richer; in the suffering we endure we become stronger, in the failures we experience we become wiser.  Grace is to discover the fullness of what our lives can be in “losing” our self-centeredness and discovering our lives’ joy in seeking happiness and blessedness for those we love.