Do the Math

 Gospel for 9/24: Mt. 20:1-16

Today’s gospel is a good one to read when we get snippy about how much we’ve done for others, overlooking how much God has done for us. Before we get our hackles up over the rampant injustice of paying the Johnny-Come-Latelys the same as those who sweated in the sun all day, let’s reconsider.


While we may think we’ve done great things for God, we may need a little remedial arithmetic too. How could we put a price on our health, our faith, the simple accidents of our birth? Even those who may not have had ideal circumstances can still point to other blessings: a safe and beautiful world, a caring teacher or social worker, friends, inborn gifts. What about God’s continued care, a steady stream of goodness even in the worst situation? As we reflect on our blessings we may find ourselves in the position of someone who paid out $100, but who inherited billions. What’s the right response? Gratitude.

Prayer in Chaos, Change, Commotion and Clutter

  •   10 am–
  • Graduate Theological Union, School of Applied Theology, Berkeley, CA
  • $180 includes lunch

Presented by Kathy Coffey   510-652-1651

Ordinary Time

Recently writing a sympathy note to a friend whose husband had died, I recalled a happy memory: his catching trout in a mountain stream, her cooking it, several of us savoring it. It seems now such an innocent time, none of us aware that in a few years, a terminal illness would start, later ending his life.

It recalled the haunting question asked by Emily in the play Our Town: “Does any human ever realize life as they live it, every, every minute?” The stage manager or God figure replies, “the saints and poets, maybe, they do some.” I’d always taken that as a challenge to become saints and poets, but perhaps it’s also good to revisit the achy place where we understand how frail and tentative all our experiences are. In a few years (or months) any of us could be sitting painfully in a hospital or retirement center, regretting our blasé, take-it-for-granted attitudes.

Most mystics counsel, Be Present Now. To live in the past is depressing; to live in the future anxious; only the present can bring happiness. And so I write my oldest son’s birthday card with deep gratitude, remembering a friend who said, “My son would’ve been 42 now—if he’d lived.” Or I pick up my grandson from kindergarten with delight, noticing how he holds tight to a new, precious book, even while he’s kicking a soccer ball around the playground.

Perhaps our blissful ignorance is a mercy. If we knew how short-lived everything was, we’d be paralyzed. It could be that heaven gives us back our best times to fully appreciate, undimmed by forgetfulness or flaws, clear and beautiful as they came from God’s hand. Then we turn wallowing to hallowing.

Prayer in Chaos, Change, Commotion and Clutter

  •   10 am–
  • Graduate Theological Union, School of Applied Theology, Berkeley, CA
  • $180 includes lunch

Presented by Kathy Coffey   510-652-1651

First Death Certificate of 9/11—Fr. Mychal Judge

Someday it may seem mild, but a priest who openly admitted being alcoholic and gay, then went rollerblading in his sixties was pushing the narrowly defined boundaries of priesthood in the seventies and eighties.

At one time, Mychal Judge drank so heavily he had blackouts. The drinking began in the seminary with little sips of altar wine. By 1976, “his alcoholism had become so serious that it became both crisis and opportunity.” After joining AA, Judge later attended as many of its meetings as he could. Some thought he was more familiar with the AA book than with the Bible.

The risk was dramatic at a time when “if a friar had drinking problem, it was hushed up or he was sent away for therapy.” So too for his second frontier: being gay. Judge was open about his gender preference even at a time when Archbishop O ‘Connor was quoted in the  New York Post as saying, “I would close all my orphanages rather than employ one gay person.” At first hesitant to march in New York’s first inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade in 2000, Judge received wild acclaim from the crowd—and nervous disapproval from the church.

That continued when he was reported to the diocese for not wearing vestments at firehouse Masses. Judge told the young clerical bureaucrat who called him on the carpet: “if I’ve ever hurt the church I’ve served and loved so dearly for 40 years, I want to be burned at the stake on 5th Ave., at the front doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” “No matter how many robes Cardinal [O’Connor] put on or how much power he tried to exert, he still could not… quash Mychal Judge.”

The story of his death is well known: Judge rushed to the World Trade Center to be with the fire fighters responding to the disaster. Some speculate that he removed his helmet to pray the last rites over a dying firefighter, was struck on the head by debris and died. Five rescue workers carried him out through the rubble; Shannon Stapleton’s photo of them was widely published. (His friends joked that even in death, Mychal still loved a photo-op.) Firefighters laid Judge’s body before the altar in a nearby church, covering it with a sheet, his stole and badge. His eulogist pointed out how appropriate it was that Judge died first; then he’d be in heaven to meet over 400 first responders who arrived later.

Judge’s biographer comments on the impromptu ritual of two cops praying over his body at Ground Zero. It’s not only OK for laity to give last rites in an emergency. It “was, in fact, entirely in keeping with Father Mychal’s own sacramental theology of hallowing the moment and was typical of the way ordinary people generated light in the darkness of that day.” [1] The overflow crowd outside Judge’s funeral proved what his eulogist said: “When he was talking with you, you were the only person on the face of the earth.. . . We come to bury his heart but not his love. Never his love.”

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In by Kathy Coffey, Liturgical Press, 800-858-5450

[1] Ibid., 11.

Rose the Riveter: Her Relevance Today

Until I visited the Richmond, CA museum dedicated to the home front effort during World War II, I had no idea of all Rosie represented. Four surviving Rosies spoke about their time building ships—744 in less than 4 years. They were part of a gargantuan effort, with the population of the small town swelling from 23,000 to 100,000, people working in three shifts, and more constantly arriving to earn the then-enormous wage of $61/week.

The four elderly women glowed when describing their White House visit with Joe Biden and Barack Obama. Although they’d received an invitation after long persuasion, they needed funds to travel. One airline not only came through with 6 tickets, but also provided a red carpet, 40’s dance band and dancers at the gate. The pilots were all women and the flight attendants all men. As Biden pointed out to the female news anchor televising the visit, “you might not have your job today if it weren’t for these ladies!” Indeed, many of the social constructs we take for granted today had their seeds in the home front movement: equal opportunities for working women, child care, health care, equality for African-Americans.

The spirit of the times was irrepressible: energetic, convinced of rightness, practical, eager to get on with the job no matter how formidable it seemed. (The Pacific fleet, after all, had largely been wiped out at Pearl Harbor.) Today we are more likely to question war, but then the imperative seemed clear.

“Why couldn’t we put the same effort into saving the planet?” I wondered. Everyone then did something, no matter how small it might have seemed. From growing Victory Gardens to soldering, those at home cheerfully supported the armed forces abroad. And many trace the Allied victories, which initially seemed unlikely, to such efforts. A common cause might engage disparate citizens today. What about protecting our earth home for our grandchildren’s heritage?

Film Review: “An Inconvenient Sequel”

It’s mesmerizing to watch the slow, melting drops of water on the polar ice cap and the explosions along Greenland glaciers due to heat. Until we realize what it means—later footage shows water filling the streets of Miami.  All that water has to go somewhere, and it’s hard to suppress cynicism when the Miami mayor promises to raise protective walls a foot. Try twelve feet, maybe?

Attempting to skirt the political implications, this beautiful planet was given as our home, for us to be good stewards. The devastation that occurs when we ignore scientists’ warnings is heart-wrenching, yet we persist…

Perhaps the best part of the film comes towards the end, with the record of countries like Chile and US cities that are converting to 100% alternative energies. Though it seems unlikely, the Republican mayor of Georgetown, TX, simply realized that solar and wind power would deliver the cheapest energy to his constituents. With some guffaws, he poses for a photo standing beside Al Gore.

I hadn’t realized before this film how Gore had intervened to help the Parish climate accord talks. India was poised to reject the agreement, because the country needed cheap power for many citizens who had none—and coal-fired plants, spewing black smoke, were the obvious way to go, as the US did 150 years ago. Somehow, Gore finaigles a low-interest loan and solar cell technology so India can build alternate power grids. They then sign onto the accord.

It’s a stark tragedy when Trump pulls out of that hard-won global consensus. But Gore quotes poet Wallace Stevens:

After the final no there comes a yes

And on that yes the future world depends.

Sounds suspiciously like talk of death and resurrection…

Movie Review: “The Zookeeper’s Wife”

It’s an older film (try the library) about a brave Polish couple who save 300 Jews during the holocaust by hiding them in the tunnels, basements, nooks and crannies of the Warsaw zoo. The natural response is to delight in their ingenuity, keeping the Nazis at bay, transporting Jews out of the ghetto in garbage trucks, secretly sending some to safety, keeping some until the end of World War II. The couple eventually receive the “Righteous Gentile” award from the Israeli government for their heroic stance.


The scene that haunts me, however, is one where children aren’t saved. Four-to six-year olds are being loaded onto trains for transport to the death camps, almost certainly the gas chambers. Jan, the Polish hero, sees an elderly rabbi accompanying them, and whispers to him, “My car is outside. I can get you to safety.” The white-haired rabbi declines the offer, however, insisting that he must go with the children so they won’t be afraid.


The gesture that broke my heart was the small children who weren’t rescued, standing on the train platform, lifting their arms to the rabbi and Jan, so they could be hoisted onto the terrible train. Their action reflects total trust, also seen in their eyes. My own grandchildren do the same thing, when they want out of the crib or a lift to see something beyond their small range of vision. I’ve held them up at aquariums, to mirrors, at ice cream counters to choose their flavor: all completely safe and innocent. So when the Jewish children raise their arms and we know the fate that awaits them, it’s heart-wrenching.     


Some would say there’s a grace even in the worst situation. Here, perhaps, it’s the nobility of the resistance, those who saved as many as they could, or the rabbi who holds hands tenderly as a grandfather at the cost of his own life. For Christians, it may recall Christ “lifting his arms to the cross.” In a mystery inconceivable to us, perhaps those children save us as he did, their suffering not meaningless but redemptive. And ultimately, they lift their arms to an eternal Father, eager to warmly welcome them home. Lift your hands to bless us again, small saints.


Film Review: Go See “The Big Sick


“I was thrilled to see a mainstream, wonderful film about a Muslim who’s not a terrorist!” said Maram, a delightful Muslim in my interfaith women’s group. If it’s still playing near you, “Run, Forrest, Run” to the movies.

Without ruining the plot, the lead actor plays himself, Kumail Nanjiani, a comedian whose family emigrated from Pakistan. The crux of the dilemma he confronts: his mother insists on an arranged marriage for him, as they were always done back home in Pakistan. He, meanwhile, falls in love with an American girl (who becomes desperately ill, hence the title.) When his mother finally finds out, a question arises that has probably been raised by every immigrant group: Irish, Chinese, German, or African.

Mom: “Do you know how much we sacrificed to bring you here? I haven’t seen my mother in 15 years, or my sister’s children. Your father had to completely redo his graduate work.”

Son: “I appreciate those sacrifices, mom. But if you wanted so much for us to grow up in the US, why are you trying to recreate the culture of Pakistan?”

When our interfaith group of Muslim, Jewish and Christian women discussed the film, the conversation was lively. We learned especially from a lovely Pakistani-American, wearing a hijab, who explained why she had an arranged marriage there. Her father, a doctor, and her mother, a professor, gave her a sheltered upbringing. She was transported to and from school, never dated, and hadn’t a clue how to choose a spouse. Because in that culture, it meant marrying into a whole family, she naturally trusted her parents to make the choice from their circle of friends. Apparently, it has worked well, although bride and groom didn’t meet until their wedding day. (North Americans may be surprised, that the statistics on arranged marriages are actually quite good.) Key to her story, though, was the closing line: “But I’d never do that for MY children!” How much can change in one generation…

Not to spoil the ending, but it’s happy. The audience in Oakland roared with laughter when girlfriend Emily’s tiny mom who had initially been doubtful about Kumail, tackles a large, clueless heckler at one of Kumail’s comic performances. Awkwardly thrown together while they keep vigil at the ICU, Muslim boyfriend and American parents eventually become quite close.

That supports the Pew research: when asked which religion they hate most, Americans respond, “Islam.” That changes, however, when they actually know a Muslim. Hasn’t that also been true for relations with people of color and gays/lesbians? Heartening to think that we’re living through a time of remarkable shifts in attitude, when we slowly come to realize that all humans have the same DNA as precious children of God.