Those Teeny Tiny Christmas Tree Lights and Advent

2nd Sunday of Advent 12-10-17

 Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; ; Psalm: 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14;  2 Peter 3:8-14;  Mark 1:1-8

Our Gospel reading is the opening 8 verses of Mark’s Gospel.  Mark chooses to begin with a quotation from Isaiah, chapter 40.  Mark clearly has chosen carefully, and we need to understand why he uses Isaiah and how he uses the images in it.

Chapters 40 to 55 of the book of Isaiah are referred to as the “Book of Consolation of Israel.” Israel was overrun by the Babylonian army some 500 years before Christ.  It is a story of great shame and loss. Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple looted and burned to the ground.  The people were captured and taken from their homeland into exile.  According to Isaiah, the refusal of the Israelites to follow God’s laws, and their unwillingness to obey God was the reason for this great tragedy.  But now the Israelites are being forgiven by God, and they will be granted their long-awaited freedom and return to rebuild their homeland.

It is a time of reconciliation. Isaiah is told to speak tenderly to the Israelites, or literally to “speak to their hearts”.  The expression is very maternal- suggesting that Jerusalem is the “mother city”, and the people are children returning to a mother’s love.  Although their punishment was severe, the Lord is returning to their midst, and the Lord should be welcomed as a great and majestic King.  The people will restore the road for God’s arrival, as God will restore his people.   Once again the Glory of the Lord will be in the temple, and the people will know God’s presence.   It is a level of joy only known to people who have suffered great losses and held against their will.

Purification was historically a big issue for the Jews. Ritual bathing was required after breaking any of a long list of laws before one could worship God again.   In a land of deserts and limited access to water, washing took on a significance that is unfamiliar to us.  Jewish tradition has it that Adam stood in the Jordan River for 40 days after he ate the fruit which was forbidden.  The prophet Elisha had Naaman wash 7 times in the Jordan River to heal his leprosy.  Traditionally, any one converting to the Jewish faith must do ritualized bathing in water.  This constitutes a rebirth, and brings purity “like that of a child just born”.  Sound familiar?  The Essenes (the Desert Fathers), of all people, were baptized each morning!

So Mark is using Isaiah, the Prophet of all Prophets, to announce that Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, is coming to restore his people. It is obvious that John is the voice crying out, literally, in the desert.  Mark knows that it has been some 300 years since Israel has had a prophet of God in their midst.  John the Baptist looks and talks and preaches like an old-time prophet.  John presses the people to repent of their sins and be right with God.  Instead of preparing the road for the king, John was preparing the people’s hearts for the King. The Psalmist says it with poetic grace: Justice (John) shall walk before (the Lord), and prepare the way of his steps.

What was the attraction to John? It wasn’t the wardrobe. I think that we all are looking for second chances.  We all, to some degree, carry around a burden of regrets for some of the choices we have make and the selfish acts we commit.  We all have a little part of us that relates to the Israelites who thought they were smarter than God and ended up being homeless captives in Babylon.  We find John in a scene stripped of the liturgical niceties; just a man in camel skins, in the barren land, next to a muddy river, providing what the people needed.  Their religious leaders at the Temple were too busy with finances and politics.  So the people from the countryside and people from the city of Jerusalem were streaming out to John.  No vestments, no holy orders, no stained glass windows, nothing but raw confrontation of sinfulness and the urgent desire for forgiveness and inner peace.

But John’s purpose in life was not to only address the people’s thirst for reconciliation. He was to create anticipation, a longing for more.  He was to proclaim the coming of the Messiah.    The road that John was preparing was for One mightier and holier than John, One who would baptize with, not water, but the Holy Spirit.  You see, people were confused about the messiah- would he be a fierce warrior who would battle the Romans, or a savior, who would bring salvation and peace?  The Messiah had been promised in Genesis; people despaired he would never come. Psalm 90 answers, “A thousand years in (God’s) eyes are merely a yesterday.”  Our 2nd reading from the 2nd letter of Peter, echoes that, saying, “Do not ignore this one fact…that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years..”  But this letter does not leave the issue there.  It goes on with, “…what sort of persons should you be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…”

And that is where the road of Advent leads us: to ask the questions of “what sort of persons we ought to be,” and how do we “prepare the road” for the Lord? How do we wash away the old presumptions and excuses, realize our failings, open our hearts for the Lord’s arrival?  How do we move toward holiness and hasten the coming of God?  I think sometimes those teeny tiny energy-efficient lights we have on our Christmas trees are a symbol of how much light we really want to have shine in the darker places of our lives.  But we have already been baptized with the Holy Spirit, so we pray, “O, Come Lord, O, Come Jesus, O, Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.”

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Questions for a New Year

1st Sunday Advent, year B 12-3-17

Isaiah 63:16b-17; 64:1, 3b-8; Ps: 80:1ac, 2b, 14-15, 17-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37

It’s easy to come to church in the summer and fall, and listen to one of the old, familiar parables of Jesus each week. In November, we had those 3 weeks of parables about “end times”, which we’ve heard before, but they’re a little different. It’s harder to make sense of them and the idea of “end times” is not so familiar to us. And then we go to the grocery store, and the pumpkin coffee and donuts have all been replaced with peppermint tea and candy canes, and the Salvation Army guy is ringing his bell. Our email is flooded with Black Friday bargains and the mailman brings stacks of ads. We come to church, and find the Advent Wreath out and the Christmas tree up. But in the Gospel, Jesus is still telling us to watch and be alert just like the last 3 weeks. It’s confusing!

Adding to the confusion is that the Church calendar is NOT the same as the School calendar, the governmental fiscal calendar or the yearly calendar we use. The church calendar serves to remind us that if school, finances or schedules are the sole focus of our lives, we took a wrong turn somewhere; we have lost sight of the larger realm of eternity.

A second issue is that few of us can participate in the weekday Masses and Marian Feasts, such as the Immaculate Conception or Assumption or Annunciation, which help us “connect the dots” and fill out the story of the Incarnation of Jesus. Also, our readings through the year do not run chronologically. We follow the church seasons instead of the time line of Jesus’ life on earth. So the church year starts with Advent, moves to Christmas – ok so far, but then jumps to Jesus’ life, and quickly moves on to Lent and Easter, reading about Jesus’ death and resurrection, then reverts to Jesus’ teachings in Ordinary time, and finishes with anticipating the 2nd coming. Add a few Feasts in, like Christ the King, and the order of events becomes blurred.

The other thing that is happening is that the church has drawn a parallel between the birth of Jesus (Historical event) and the 2nd coming of Jesus (future expectation). But we get a little help with this one! The liturgy gives us an overlap this first Sunday of Advent to make the transfer back from end times/ second coming to the birth of Jesus.

Notice in Isaiah we read, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down (that is both the 2nd coming and birth, yet it also reminds us of the sky opening at Christ’s baptism), with the mountains quaking before you (a scene from the crucifixion), while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old (miracles of the historical Jesus, the resurrection, and expectations of the new heaven and new earth).” So all the images of past and future mingle together. Then we read the last sentence of that reading, which says, “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.” It is a prayer to our creator to keep us soft, moldable, open to the nuances of the scriptures, to be able to see God in new ways and new events, always ready to learn new lessons and truths about God how God acts in our lives and in our world.

Just as we go to the closet under the stairs and bring out the lights and tinsel and ornaments that transform that old artificial tree into a Christmas tree that brings us joy and comfort, so our Psalm proverbially goes to the closet and brings out the memories that bring us into a new season. The Psalmist says, Remember that God is the shepherd that searches after the one lost sheep. Remember that God is light, who shines into the darkness, who dispels fears and uncertainty. Remember we believe that God came to save us; that God sees us and is aware of us. God is the gardener who protects the fragile young plants, who protects and makes us strong enough to face the storms of life. Finally, we recall the understanding that living with love, and staying close to God is the way to life at its fullest and best, despite what is happening around us.

St Paul echoes the Psalm, as he so often does, writing, “In Christ Jesus…you were enriched in every way…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation if our Lord Jesus Christ.” In that I hear shades of the Birth of Christ, 2nd coming, before, in between, and after.

One thing I always wonder is this: if I had met the historical Jesus on the road, would I have known him to be the Son of God, the Messiah? Would I have been open to his divinity, willing to look past his humanity and see more? Our Gospel asks this question: “Are we ready to see the Christ child as more than just another infant? How will we learn to discern, and recognize him if he is “not what we expect”? Or will we be asleep in the to-do list for the day, the complications of life, difficulties with relationships, concerns about health or finances? Will we somehow delude ourselves into thinking that Jesus would never return without at least texting us first? How will we live so that the greatest joy possible in life, being at the gate to welcome Jesus with open arms when he returns, becomes a reality? How can we be fully watchful and alert to Jesus, regardless of our surroundings, our mood, and our presumptions?

These are questions that draw us into the time of Advent, make us sit down and re-consider how available we are to God. They make us more aware that we are in the midst of God’s actions; that we make this journey through life together with each other and everyone past and future. It nudges us to sense the greater goals and purposes of life. Welcome to Advent.

The Three Big O’s

Christ the King11-26-17

Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; Psalm: 23:1-6 1 Corinthians15:20-26, 28Matthew 25:31-46

I remember a Sunday school class, long ago. We were learning that God was omniscient, (all-knowing) omnipresent (everywhere), and omnipotent (all-powerful).  The teacher hoped to “wow” us with the words.  But we were the new generation – taught to ask questions & expecting answers.  So someone asked, “Does that mean God is in the garbage can?”  The questioner was not being rude or flippant; the question was honestly one for clarification. The poor teacher stuttered and stammered, and finally, hesitantly agreed that, “Yes”, everywhere was, indeed, everywhere, even undesirable places.

Now, I have some questions about “Christ the King”. “King” is a political title, masculine at that.  God is not a gendered being.  Jesus was not political.  In fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingship is not of this world…”  Jesus’ authority is not of any geopolitical space. And wasn’t the original purpose of “Christ the King” in 1925 to emphasize that Jesus was entirely different and far superior to those dictators violently grabbing for power across Europe? Wasn’t this the church’s attempt to remind us that military rule is the antithesis of Jesus’ message to love God and neighbor, the only “rule” necessary?

Thomas Friedman, a well- known New York Times columnist, recently published his latest book, “ Thank you for being Late: an optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations.”  It’s a good read.  The title refers to a friend being late for a lunch date, and Mr. Friedman having unexpected time when he could sit and think about some of the changes in our culture.  The changes all seemed to revolve around technology altering the ways we relate to one another, market consumer goods, communicate, travel, view our world, and so on– and the increasingly rapid technological advances coming at us.  Some one (who knows, maybe the kid from my Sunday school class) asked him this sincere question, “Is God in cyberspace?”  Technology has expanded the universe beyond stars and galaxies. Like my teacher, Friedman didn’t know how to answer.  So he asked his Rabbi.

Rabbi Marx responded from two different perspectives. The 1st is the traditional view from the Jewish Scriptures:  God had Moses lead his people out of Egypt and he sent prophets to guide them.  The Psalms are full of praise of God for saving people from danger and despair; God is passionately engaged and present; God seeks us out.  But Marx says, (If you think) “God makes his presence felt through divine intervention, (well) he sure… isn’t in cyberspace, which is full of pornography, gambling, …all manner of hate speech, etc. ,etc.” He makes cyberspace sounds like a garbage can. But Marx, unlike the Psalmists, seems to deny that God would get his hands dirty when things go bad.

So, Rabbi Marx continues with the 2nd perspective, “The Jewish post-biblical view of God is that we make God present by our own choice and our own decisions; whether it’s a real room or a chat room, you have to bring Him there yourself by how you behave, by the moral choices and mouse clicks you make.  In that view, we understand that from the first day of the world…(humankind) was responsible for making God’s presence manifest by what we do.  And the reason this issue is most acute in cyberspace is that no one else is in charge there.  There is no place in today’s world, where you encounter the freedom to choose that God gave us, more than in cyberspace – where we are all connected and no one is in charge.  So the answer is “No” – but God wants to be there.”

I like the emphasis on personal responsibility, but I wonder if this sad view of a God who shyly waits for us to invite him in finds its roots in the racist homicidal evil of the Nazis, who killed more than 6 million Jews, as well as the hope & faith of generations. Pollsters say that among today’s American Jews, twice as many people view God as an “impersonal force”, rather than the God who seeks a relationship with us and is always present.

So, as Catholic Christians, what do we do about “Christ the King”? We turn to Tradition and Scripture.  Our belief in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a good place to start.  Paul (1 Cor 3:16) says it plainly: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” I dare say, wherever I am, God is there, even in that garbage can of a nursing home in Glen Burnie. I shared the Spirit with people there and sometimes I met the Spirit in the rooms and the hallways.  People who “did not speak” said “Hail Mary’s” with me and prayed the Lord’s Prayer.  We can participate in the light and power of the Divine Spirit – and that Spirit is all spaces, cyber and otherwise. The church celebrates this indwelling in Baptism, Confirmation, and the Mass.

Jesus came to earth and was met with the slaughter of the Innocents by Herod, he spoke boldly when tempted by Satan, he called out to Simon and Andrew when they were fisherman, he engaged the woman at the well, he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday against the advice of the disciples, he approached the men walking to Emmaus, he appeared to the apostles after his resurrection; he did not wait for them to come to him. The people (Mark 1: 27) recognized he spoke with a new kind of “authority”.  He told us, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt 28:20)  Jesus is not hesitant.  Jesus is present.

John 3:16 says,” For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  In Revelations, we find, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come.” It sounds like God has the future technological advances covered already.

So I conclude that not only is God omniscient, omnipresent & omnipotent, and therefore there is no worry about God’s authority in the universe, but we should focus on what we can control. That means we focus on our relationship with God and neighbor, and we share that in word and deed (like in today’s Gospel), keep the “garbage cans” of our lives clean, contribute to our society with integrity, and trust God for the rest.

Big Bucks and a Great Big Job

33rd Sunday Ordinary time 11-19-17

Proverbs 31:10-13; 19-20, 30-31, Ps: 128:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6;

Matthew 25:14-30

We begin our Gospel reading with the verse immediately after where we left off last week after the parable about the ten young women waiting for a bridegroom. 5 women ran out of oil for their lamps. While they were away buying oil, the bridegroom came and locked them out of the wedding celebration. They failed to be prepared.

As Fr. Joe told us, this parable was not about weddings, but about the last days, the end times, the 2nd coming of Jesus. And the lamps are not about oil or energizer bunny batteries, but about being prepared for the inevitable judgment that is part of the end times. We’re more apt to say something like, “Get your lights on”, meaning to understand what needs to be done, and to make sure our faith and our behavior line up. We are talking about being tuned into God (prayer), staying tight with our faith (worship), and using the life teaching app Jesus left us (the Bible).

So we must again look at today’s Gospel and interpret it through the lens of last days and end times. This is again not about money, or interest rates. The Greek talanton was a huge monetary unit of silver coinage worth about the same as the lifetime earnings of a Palestinian laborer. Parables often use exaggeration to make the lesson more obvious, but the fact that the first servant was given 5 talantons should tip you off right away that whatever we are talking about is of great value, perhaps even something that cannot be bought or sold. Also notice the master is entrusting his property to the servants, very valuable property. The master is taking great risk and his high expectations are clear.

The other important piece is the setting of this parable. This takes place after Palm Sunday. It is two days before Passover. Judas is about to begin his negotiations with the Chief priests to betray Jesus. This is Jesus’ last major teaching to his followers. He has already told them that he will be crucified. He, like the master in the parable, is going away, for a long time. What valuable property is Jesus entrusting to his disciples? He’s given them the message of the kingdom. What a privilege it must have been to hear it from Jesus, yet it also was a great responsibility. Those who hear it are accountable for continuing to share the message as Jesus gave it to them. It is a message that makes any amount of money seem insignificant, and the expectation is enormous.

So what does Jesus give each one of us? Breath, life itself, forgiveness, love, mercy, grace, unselfish love; companionship, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, free will, birds, flowers, our food growing in the fields, and the riches of the earth! We could continue to add to the list all day. And what does he ask us, his servants, to do? Well, we are to be responsible for the church, for living and sharing the Good News we have heard. We are to join together in community, encouraging one another and embracing the needy, the hopeless, the sick, and those imprisoned in bad choices. We are to “handle these accounts” for him until he returns. It is a huge responsibility, even more than those large sums of money. The servants who doubled the master’s money were praised. The master says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant…Come share your master’s joy.”

What will earn us praise? What is it like to be responsible for the church? Jesus is not suggesting the church should remain as it was. Pope John XXIII said: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.” The apostles knew that the church was not to be buried in a “safe” place.
That sounds like what the 3rd servant did, who just kept the money he was given safe. It did not grow. He did it alone, without going to any bankers or fellow servants to guide him. He just, well, did nothing; life as usual. But his response to the master gives him away. He says he knew his master’s expectations and he was afraid. Given the master’s reaction to the other 2 servants, I have to question if he really knew his master at all.

He reminds me of people I meet. They say they know what Jesus taught, that they understand the expectations of love and generosity, yet somehow they remain unmotivated to be productive or get help changing their life, and they continue on, disobeying the master, somehow thinking that handing back the money would be enough. Did your math teacher give you a passing grade when you had not learned anything? Does the mortgage get paid when you have not earned anything? No; and there are consequences. The 3rd servant found this out. He lost his job and his home, and suffered in remorse. He was bound by fear of loss, and loss was the result.

But we just talked about St. Paul’s 2nd missionary journey; that demonstrated that Paul was often not safe, worked hard sometimes for little gain, but always rebounded to move on and share the Good News of Jesus and the resurrection. He taught the scriptures unceasingly, he created faith communities all over Asia Minor, and his letters created a network of Christians. He took enormous risks, with no regrets. He wrote, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for at the proper time, we shall reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Gal 6:9)

Are you willing to take risks for the Gospel, or are you paralyzed by fear? If you were a leader in the Church, what kind of risks would you take to insure growth of the faithful? Let those questions perk in your mind, for we will come back to them another day. The intent of this parable is to urge us to be faithful in our obedience to the Gospel until Jesus returns. The idea of stewardship derives its importance from the importance of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom. The parable’s harsh ending of judgment and punishment is not necessarily a realistic description of divine judgment, but it serves to warn us and shock us into thoughtfully considering how we invest ourselves in the growth of the Kingdom.

Stay tuned: next week will be the last Sunday of the church year, and Jesus will finish his “last days” homily, which includes more specifics of his expectations and how to meet them.

Be Prepared

32nd Sun Ordinary time, 11-12-17 Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm: 63:2-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18;  Matthew 25:1-13

 

Once again our Lectionary is playing a trick on us. What does it do?  Well, it leaves out the first word of our Gospel!  What is that word?  The word is, “Then”.  Why does it matter? For two reasons: first, it lets us know that this part of Matthew’s Gospel is a series of teachings and parables about the end times.  This parable is not free-standing and disconnected.   Second, it tells us that Jesus is teaching about things in the future.  In fact, all of verse one is important.  Jesus says, “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to (or “will be like”) ten maidens who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.”  This lets us know we need to read it like a parable, which is a lesson which uses a story to explain some important point.  The story isn’t the point, and the characters and setting aren’t the point – but the story is a way to make a point.  The kingdom of heaven is “like” the whole story, not just parts of it or people in it.

One of the common problems with this parable is that people get hung up on the unimportant setting of the story. We don’t know a lot about the historical wedding traditions of Jesus’ day, and what we do know indicates that many areas had a variety of traditions.*  Where the bridegroom was coming from or going to is not part of the story.   This is not about the church, or the maidens, or lamp oil.  When we focus on these things, we miss the point of the story.  Let’s talk instead about what the parable teaches.

This is a parable that was in part clarified by the Dead Sea Scrolls, found only some 50 or so years ago (the writings of the Christian community at Qumran). The document 4Q434a* describes messianic times when evil ends, the earth is filled with God’s glory, and sins are reconciled.  “(The Messiah) will console them in Jerusalem…like a bridegroom with his bride he will live for ever…his throne is for ever and ever…”   This fits with Matt 9:15 (Cana wedding), Mark 2:19-20 (When the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples do not fast), and Luke 5: 34-35 (also in response to questions about fasting); these are all scriptures where Jesus used the term “bridegroom” for himself.  So, the coming of the “bridegroom” in our Gospel refers to the second coming of Jesus.*

Matthew also uses the idea of “I do not know you” in Matthew 7:23 when Jesus tells his followers, “No every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” In other words, those who do not do God’s will be told, “I never knew you; depart from me.” Scholars suggest that this was a common expression of the day for a teacher whose followers failed to follow through with what they had been taught*.  This expression reminds us that there will be a final judgment – those who have done the will of God will be separated from those who chose their own beliefs and agenda.  There are consequences for filling our days with goals that do not match God’s will, and leaving love and wisdom until “later.”

This parable was told to Jesus’ followers. But it also was a warning for all who heard him, Jew, Pharisee, or Gentile, us, then or now – to be prepared for Jesus’ return.  The surrounding teachings in Matthew chapters 24 and 25 all stress the need for being ready for the end times – whether it should come earlier than expected or later than expected.

Indeed, the parable just before our reading is the parable about the servant who is drunk and abusive to the other servants because the master is away, and is not expected for some time. The master arrives sooner than expected and the servant is punished and thrown out.  The servant was not ready.  Now we read about women who are not ready when the bridegroom was delayed.   In this instance, the parable is based on this delay.  The delay* is the factor which reveals which women were prepared and which were not.

Some people have suggested that Matthew conceived this parable to assure Christians who feared that Jesus would not return.  But there is no evidence of that here. Rather, we are reading about wisdom and foolishness in regard to being prepared.  Jesus uses “Wisdom” and “readiness” as synonyms.*  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all emphasized Jesus’ statement, “heaven and earth will pass away…but of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, not the Son, but the Father alone… therefore, be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.”

So, we are to be alert. We are not to sit on the sidelines, with a ready supply of beer and pretzels, and watch life go past us.  Our call to readiness and preparedness is to faithfully fulfill our Christian calling.  When we care for our neighbors, near and far, we actively display our faith for all to see. We are like lights in the darkness of selfishness and greed.  We display love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  (Galatians 5:22) In one of the great paradoxes of life, we find that by choosing a path which may appear difficult and burdensome, we find joy and peace.

We proclaim victory over death. We pray God’s Kingdom will come.  We work so evil will come to an end.  This is a way to live – each day and in every circumstance, a frame for how we approach life; the basis for every decision we make.  Wisdom, Solomon wrote, “is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her.  (Wisdom) hastens to make herself known, anticipating (our need for her)”; Wisdom will not disappoint us.  And Jesus, upon his return, will find us ready.

 

*From Klyne R. Snodgrass’ book, “Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the parables of Jesus.” William B. Eerdmans Publisher, 2008, Pages 509-518.

All Souls Day – Remembering

Lamentations 3: 17-18, 21-26; Psalm 103: 8, 10, 13-17; 1 Corinthians 1: 51-57; Matthew 11: 28-20

We come together today to remember friends, family, husbands and wives, parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, and all that we held dear and all who left their mark on our lives, for the good or not so good. We mourn them all.  Many of us still have paper address books, where it is not so easy to delete names.  Some of us even leave those who have passed on in our electronic contact lists.  It is not because we deny that gap in our lives and in our hearts, but because we know instinctively that even when a living beings stops breathing, a heart stops beating, that life is not simply deleted from the universe.

Pollsters have numbers for us about who says they believe in God or believe in heaven, or believe in life after earthly death. They tell us that such beliefs are trending down.  I suspect that people’s lives are often filled with stress and over-filled schedules, and there is little time to consider such issues.

Yet I will tell you that I spend little time wondering if I believe in God or heaven or eternal life – and that is because I have confidence in all of them. I have spent enough time with people, time with the dying, time in the scriptures, time in prayer to know I believe.  I don’t pretend to know the how or where or when or why or who.  I don’t need to know the answers to those questions – because I trust what I have seen and heard and read and felt.  It is not a belief based on emotions, but rather a kind of knowing at an entirely different level.

I have lots of good company with my beliefs. There are four sets of readings designated especially for this day, with the option of many more which are listed in the Order of Christian Funerals.  That book offers 7 Old Testament readings, 19 New Testament readings, 10 Psalms and 19 Gospel readings.  This is belaboring the point, I’m sure, but I took this great math class, learning about combinations and permutations, so we have 25,270 different combinations of lectionary readings for today.  I’d say that means lots of other folks through the years would testify on my behalf if my beliefs were questioned.

All that, however, is really only evidence. None of that really dulls the pain when we lose someone we hold dear.  One priest friend told me to think of old coal burning train (just for a moment we will set aside the environmental concerns).  The engine, you know, the locomotive, moves the train.  What comes directly behind the engine?  The coal car, of course.  The engine cannot move without fuel.  What comes behind the coal car?  Well, the freight cars.  The freight cars are where we would put our emotions, our feelings.  Emotions are important, just as freight is important.  But the coal car is our faith, and that’s what fuels us.  That is what makes us know that we can move through this life, despite the hard times and the big losses.

Even more than “get us through,” faith presents an entirely different scenario to consider. What do our readings suggest?  The first reading, paraphrased, says, yes, life can knock the stuffing out of us.  But the Lord is still there, the creator and shepherd of us all.  The Lord brings a new day every morning, a new start, and new hope.  Healing can be slow, but God is with us through it.

Our Psalm says, yes, life seems all too short and far too fragile. But God is love and love is eternal.  Love does not seek to punish, but to reward, love seeks us out.  Love will hold each of us close forever.

St. Paul in our 2nd reading tells us we have immortality in our future.  Things will not always be as they appear to us now.  Things can and will change.  Death is not the winner.  Love and life are, in the end, victorious.  God has created us to be part of that victory.

Finally, in our Gospel, Jesus assures us of his presence and his help in the times when the burden seems to be just too much.

Many saints, as death drew near, have written that they looked forward to what came next – not in despair or in a maudlin or selfish way, but in anticipation of great joy. Part of a Christian funeral is the concept of celebrating the life that is to come. So we stand in the great flow of life.  Behind us, we miss those who are gone, but rejoice that they are safe with God.  Ahead of us, we wonder about the future, but look forward with confidence that we will join them when God “wipes away every tear, when there will be no more death, no more mourning, nor crying, nor pain.” For all those things will have passed away. (Rev. 21:4)

100% God

29th Sunday Ordinary time, 10-22-17. Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Palm 96:1-10; 1Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22: 15-21

 

We start today with Cyrus. To help us understand this, and indeed all our readings today, we need to know who Cyrus was, what he did, and why Isaiah gives such glowing praise to him.

Here’s some history: Babylon came into prominence in ancient history about 1,830 years before the birth of Christ.  But the Babylon we read about in the Bible is mostly the Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar. In 586 BC they captured and destroyed Jerusalem, taking all the treasures from the Temple, killing many of the people, and taking most of the remaining population as captives to exile in Babylon.  The military tactics of Babylon were to take everything of value and kill and burn everything else. They ruled over other nations by destroying the population centers, the culture, and the very way of life of their victims.  This is why the Bible uses Babylon as a symbol and synonym for evil.

But what goes around comes around, and brutal Babylon fell to Cyrus, the Persian king, in 540 BC.  Cyrus had an entirely different style from Nebuchadnezzar. He would negotiate with nations before he used force. In the end, he ruled most of Europe and Asia, and created the largest Empire in history.  Cyrus respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered and is still recognized for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy. He established a government which –listen to this!-worked to the advantage and profit of its subjects; and he repatriated the people to their original homelands, even decreeing that the Temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt.  Cyrus is the only non-Jew to be called “the anointed one”, the same title given to Israel’s kings, because he restored the Jewish Nation.  His behavior, and by extension, his image is forever a part of Jewish history.  But God is still God, and the only God.

The truth is that Cyrus acted more like God than many of Israel’s kings. The people of Ancient Israel were to understand that their true King was indeed God, not the man who sat on the throne.  Our Psalm then, is an enthronement Psalm, which was to be sung at the annual feast where the king took his throne to symbolize God’s kingship over the people.

Moving on to the Gospel, it is important to start by saying that Jesus does not pull off a “smooth dodge” to a difficult question, but rather roughly confronts his challengers. They were immediately stripped of their pretense and proven to be hypocrites. Jesus won round one by the fact that they were carrying and handed him a Roman coin which proclaimed Caesar to be divine and had an image of him (considered by Jews to be a sinful and idolatrous “graven image”).

Secondly, is this about a 40/60 or 30/70 split between God and Caesar? No! Even the question of what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar is meaningless.  We have missed Jesus’ point if we try to sort our lives into two piles: one for God and one for the Caesar-type God-want-to-be’s.  For we were created in God’s image.  If the image of Caesar on the coin means the coin belongs to Caesar and recognizes Caesar as head of the Roman Empire, then if we bear the image of God, who do we belong to?  Who rules over our lives?  God, of course, 100%. God ruled over Caesar and all human leaders, even the Pharisees and the Herodians.  Jesus won round two when he sent a clear message of shame to them by revealing their question as a denial of God’s role in their lives.  They were resisting what they themselves taught as God’s message and they were not acting as God has taught them.

Finally, Jesus is not talking about a division between church and state.   That is a modern American concept, and would be unheard of in Judea in Jesus’ day.  It’s not about paying taxes.  That was just the cover story of the challengers. This is a confrontation regarding the teachings and authority of Jesus, and over the last few weeks we have read a total of 5 confrontations where Jesus has used increasingly strongly worded and pointed parables to shame those who challenged him into seeing their errors.  We have heard the laborers in the vineyard, the two sons in the vineyard, the landowner whose tenants killed his son, the wedding feast, and now the coin question.  In Matthew’s Gospel, all these stories are told during Holy Week.  It is as if Jesus is pulling out all the stops to help his challengers understand, and instead they become more entrenched, angrier, and increasingly determined to silence him.

The saddest paradox of this exchange is that these Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and Herodians, have Jesus standing in front of them. This is what ultimately reveals their blindness to God. It’s painful to read about the stubbornness of those men.  It’s even more painful to have people we care about in our lives who will not change their response to God.  It’s especially painful to find those hidden places in our own lives that do not reflect Christ’s love, his prayers and teaching, his generosity and patience, and his sacrifice for us.  To live our lives in God’s image, we can look to Christ.

But St. Paul had found, in Thessalonica, people who had chosen to look to Christ.  Paul leaves us more hopeful as we read what he wrote to them, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope.”  The Gospel, Paul says, “…did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”  And so, we are encouraged to seek the Gospel in Word and in Power and with much conviction, with the help of the Holy Spirit, who stands ready, day and night, to bring us a constantly deeper understanding of God, allowing us to live in God’s image.