Saturday, March 29, 2014

Book Review: Mercy in the City

Jesus told his disciples to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, and provide comfort to those who need it. Sounds easy, right? Yeah, easier said than done is what I say!

Her book basically focuses on the Corporal Works of Mercy which we find in Matthew chapter 25. Even after many years of preaching and teaching on this text it's much easier to love "humanity" in general but hate ones neighbor. It's easy to "love the world" but hate your wife or husband. Jesus didn't love in general, he loved persons: the Samaritan woman, the ten lepers, the man born blind, the paralytic, the woman with the flow of blood, as well as Peter, James, John, and the rest of the twelve. He loved individual people with their individual pains, problems, warts, and wrinkles. He loved both Jew and Gentile, both poor and rich, both married and single. When reading the gospels I often wonder, "how did Jesus love all of those people I know I can't. I try but it's not easy." 

In her new book, Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job (Loyola Press, 2014) Kerry Weber tries to unpack Matthew 25 in a way that we can all follow Jesus each and every day and as the subtitle says "keep your day job." 

Most folks think that priests or members of religious orders are called to ministry and service. What a bunch of baloney! By virtue of our baptism we are all called to serve the "least of these" as Jesus says. Weber, an editor at America Magazine set out one Lent to try to actually live according to Jesus' injunction in Matthew 25. Mercy in the City is her account of how she managed to seek perfection through loving ones neighbor yet doing it in fits and starts. 

Weber shows us how hard it is to see Christ in other people one day as she passed by a homeless man every day only to find that he shows up at the shelter one evening where she'd volunteer to work. She realizes then how she was like the Rich Man in the Rich Man and Lazarus story in Luke. She learns that this man has a name and that he actually knows Weber's boss at America. Talk about getting a dose of humility! There is a funny passage where she has to serve sandwiches in a morning breadline only to find out that even homeless people fight and argue over a sandwich and a cup of coffee. 

Mercy in the City is part memoir and part spiritual journey. The chapters are very short and one could read the entire book in a long afternoon. However, the one drawback from the book is that I was wanting more. Weber is such a good writer with great material. I found the chapters were almost like sketches rather than full blown chapters. I wanted to see more of the folks whom she met as well as how she changed through the process. You get glimpses of this throughout the book but I was hoping to have more of Weber's only spiritual journey on the page. I wanted to read more about her struggles trying to love her neighbors, more stories about the real inner struggle when one is conflicted to love those whom don't love you back. 

This being said Mercy in the City is a good read if you are looking for some insight into how you too, like Kerry, can follow Jesus in the 21st century without going to seminary, without necessarily studying theology, and as she says, not leave your day job. 

For more information about Mercy in the City click here 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book Review: Jesus A Pilgrimage

Let me get this out of the way first: I love Father Martin's books.

A few years ago a friend mentioned Martin's book,  My Life with the Saints (HarperOne, 2007). I devoured it in a few days. After reading that I immediately read Between Heaven and Mirth (HarperOne, 2012) and A Jesuit Guide (to Almost) Everything (HarperOne, 2012) and loved them as well. I enjoyed them so much that I suggested that our parish prayer group read them for our book studies. And after Easter we will read Jesus: A Pilgrimage (HarperOne, 2014).

Father Martin brings the spiritual life "to life." So often authors use abstract terms and concepts or academic jargon,  but not Father Martin. No. When reading his books you feel like Father Martin is in the room with you gently guiding you through the text,  pointing out the essentials, but not getting too bogged down in details. I admire Father Martin's clear writing style and prose. I also enjoy his self deprecating humor. I never heard Father Martin preach, but judging from his healthy sense of humor and wit, I'm sure he's a great preacher.

Readers of Father Martin's previous books will not be disappointed with his latest offering. Jesus: A Pilgrimage is part memoir, part travel writing, and part Biblical commentary and reflection. The book is a result of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that Father Martin took with his friend George a few years ago.

The book is divided into twenty five chapters which basically follow the life of Jesus. Jesus: A Pilgrimage brought back many memories from my own pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2014. I too, like Father Martin, took a journal with me and made many of the same observations and reflections as he did, especially the crazy atmosphere at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with tourists pushing and shoving and selling crosses and candles, it was like a zoo! After returning from the Holy Land I realized that many of the places where I felt the most "spiritual" or "in tune with God" was not in the crowded Church's, monasteries, and tourist sties,  but in the quiet places such as standing atop Mount Tabor overlooking the green valley below or while in a boat taking a short trip across the Sea of Galilee or watching the waterfalls at Caeserea Philippi.

I have read many books on the life and world of Jesus. Yet for the most part they are generally one dimensional. They cover the facts and offer important commentary and insight yet they are missing something: the personal dimension.  Father Martin's stories bring the Holy Land to life showing us how we can follow Jesus' footsteps from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Jerusalem, but that we are all called to follow Jesus each and every day.  While Father Martin and George went on a spiritual pilgrimage to Israel we are all on our own personal pilgrimages in our homes, at work, in Church, and in the world. The personal invitation "come and see" that Philip made to Nathaniel in the beginning of John's gospel is an invitation for all of us whether we are clergy or lay, single or married, male or female. All of us are invited to follow the Lord wherever we are and in whatever situation we find ourselves.

Jesus: A Pilgrimage is a wonderful resource for pastors looking for greater insight for their weekly sermons and homilies. It's also a great resource for Bible studies and for parish book clubs. I certainly will return to Jesus: A Pilgrimage again for my own preaching and teaching in the years to come.

For more information about Jesus: A Pilgrimage click here 

For a list of Father Martin's other books click here 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Book Review: We Preach Christ Crucified

"Always preach the gospel, use words if you have to" is a phrase that has traditionally been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. I love this quote and have used it numerous times in some of my Sunday sermons. Too often pastors tend to over explain things drawing on complex theological and abstract concepts and at the end of the day the average Joe or Jane Doe in the pew has no idea what they are talking about. We have to be reminded that Jesus used simple everyday images in his teaching and preaching, images such as sheep, goats, vines, wheat, mill stones, wine, water, and bread. He spoke to farmers, peasants, single mothers, foreigners, Jews, and Greeks alike. He spoke to those who were wealthy and those who were poor. He spoke to those who were educated and those who were not. He spoke to both men and women, both married, and those who were single. Yet on Sunday morning we tend to forget that Jesus' preaching was simple but not simplistic, brief but not watered down.

Preaching is the heart of this new anthology recently published by Liturgical Press. We Preach Christ Crucified is a collection of essays and talks that were delivered at a conference on preaching hosted by the University of Notre Dame in June 2012. It includes a collection of seventeen essays by some noteworthy theologians, pastors, and preachers such as Barbara Reid, Jan Michael Joncas, Mary Catherine Hilkert, and John Cavadini among others. The essays also reflect a wide range of sub-topics such as preaching in the presence of children, preaching and the liturgical experience, the African-American experience of preaching, preaching among the poor, as well as some challenges and choices with preaching in the 21st century. There is literally something for everyone in this book.

Even though I am a well seasoned pastor I always try to learn something new in order to improve my sermons. Preaching may seem easy to our parishioners but its a challenge to create a well crafted, inspiring, and hopefully encouraging and uplifting sermon each week. I often feel like I've reaches the bottom of the well on certain gospel lessons yet if I look hard I always find something new to offer my community.

We Preach Christ Crucified needs to be read by both seminary students and pastors who want to get some new insights on preaching. The essay on "Preaching and Children" for example inspired me to read a book by Sofia Cavaletta, a student of the great Maria Montessori. Cavaletti's work involves children and how they view spirituality, God, and how they deal with mystery. I got it through my local library's inter-library loan department. I have quite a few children and Church and I hope that my sermons also touch their hearts as well. We often think we are only preaching to our adult members but we can easily forget that we have a parish full of young children who absorb what we say like sponges. We cannot forget to use basic, everyday images that also appeal to them as well.

I can go on and on about We Preach Christ Crucified but I don't have the time to elaborate. If you are interested in improving your sermons. If you are interested in what scholars today are saying about preaching in a way that is highly readable and important for us as clergy and for our laity, then go and read We Preach Christ Crucified. 

Click here to read more about the book