7 Sundays

3rd Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019

Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Psalm 30:2,-6, 11-13; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21 1:1-19

At the opening of today’s Gospel, Peter and 7 of the other apostles are still reeling from the shock of the crucifixion and are still not entirely sure just exactly what happened afterwards. When we lose someone very dear to us, we may also fear that we have no hope for the future. That is how they felt: hopeless, without a future, empty inside, lost.  So it doesn’t surprise us that the 8 men, like a bunch of mother-less boys, don’t know what to do.  They do what they always did before – they went fishing, maybe for something to eat, maybe make a little money, mostly, just for something to do, something they were used to, that brought back good memories, and something that didn’t demand their confused brains to work very hard.

But night turns into morning, and no fish had been sighted; nothing. A voice calls out an Aramaic word which means something like lads, or guys, a name for young men.  And the voice tells them to fish on the other of the boat.

Now isn’t that just like real life. We can be so close to success, to making sense of our lives, to achieving an important goal, and we never think of making a small adjustment that might bring success. I was an employment counselor for 13 years, and oversaw job training programs.  I saw people make foolish decisions, do things they knew would ruin their chance for finishing the training, when they were close to the end.   We all tend to have a habit of fishing out of just one side of the boat, to keep things from changing.  We continue to flounder because we keep doing the same thing that doesn’t work anymore.

We need the voice of Jesus in our lives to lead us to good alternatives. I can’t tell you how many times Jesus has offered me solutions to really hard situations – ideas I never would have considered, but ideas that were absolutely brilliant and successful yet at the same time simple.  John recognized Jesus by what he did – Jesus changed one small detail which made everything different.  That is how Jesus tends to move in our lives, not with fireworks, but a gentle nudge.

Jesus is on the beach with another charcoal fire. Do you remember the first charcoal fire we read about in John’s Gospel?  The first fire warmed Peter in Caiaphas’s courtyard when, as predicted, Peter denies Jesus three times. Today John tells us about this second charcoal fire, where Jesus invites Peter to seek forgiveness for his 3 denials by declaring his love three times. Each time Jesus asks Peter to act out that love by service: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” He then predicts that Peter’s service will take him where he does not want to go. Social justice ministry is important, but sometimes that ministry takes us where we might not want to go, we might work with people we don’t understand or even like, we will seeing suffering that is hard to witness and calls us to give more of ourselves than we had planned on. Serving Jesus means loving our enemies, like the Roman oppressors, like the narrow-minded Pharisees.  You know people today that you could call your enemies.  What Jesus asks is easy to say and very hard to do (or we would do it).

I am once again astounded by the way Jesus handles this reconciliation. I know of no one that would be so gentle, yet at the same time so firm.  A man I know has the most active prayer life I have ever encountered.  He tells me he has never experienced such gentleness as the gentleness of Jesus.  But, on the other hand, he when he tries to describe the power and strength of Jesus, he is at a loss for words, and just shakes his head, amazed.  I think that is the Jesus that this passage describes.  Jesus addresses Peter with 4 simple words “Do you love me?”  Peter offers his whole heart with his reply, “You know that I love you.”

Those words bring Peter to tears – and complete and lasting change. This is literally a point of life change for Peter.  He could have ended up taking his own life out of remorse, as Judas did.  Judas could have come to face Jesus and lived, but he didn’t.  Judas believed the lie that his sin was too great.  Surely his betrayal was a sin, but the real sin was to turn his back on Jesus and refuse to believe that Jesus has the power to forgive our sin. Do we have what it takes to forgive those who have hurt us?  Do we have what it takes to face our failings and ask for forgiveness? Do we understand that our sins, our failures, our moments of greed and self-absorption can lead us to a point of life change? The very worse mistakes in our lives can bring us blessings untold when we take them to Jesus.

Our 1st reading from Acts therefore has a totally transformed Peter, saying to the very same High Priest he was so very fearful of not long before, “We must obey God rather than man” and so bolding finding joy in suffering threats and dishonor for being true to Jesus.  He not only returns to be an apostle, a follower of Jesus, but moves ahead, and moves to the “other side of the boat” – leadership.  One side of the boat there was a gentle call; moving to the other side of the boat, there was the power to create a multitude of fish where there were none before.  So Peter moves on to publicly witnesses to the Risen Christ, a true fisher of mankind.

After Easter, we can return to the world we were used to, seeming unchanged.  Maybe that’s why we have 7 Sundays of Easter Season.  It gives us time to face a living, resurrected Jesus, and a world where life does triumph over death.  It gives us time to hear a call from the beach, to witness the miracle of Jesus’ power.  It gives us time to move to the other side of the boat and recognize Jesus for who he is. It gives us time to draw near to Jesus at the charcoal fire, sinners as we are, and be given the gifts of reconciliation and forgiveness.  There we can proclaim a new level of love and desire to take the love given to us to all the people who are lost sheep in this world.  My friends, the sheep are waiting!

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What does Easter mean to us, today?

Easter 4-21-2019

Readings:  Acts 10: 34, 37-43; Ps 118; Colossians 3; 1-4; John 20: 1-9

One Easter, Several years ago, I was sitting in a church aptly named Holy Trinity in Glen Burnie, MD. Just across the aisle from me sat an older woman and a younger woman.  The older one leaned over and said to the younger, “You know, Jesus didn’t really die.”

I have wondered ever since what people think Easter is. But Jesus left us (all) in charge of spreading “The Good News” which includes telling the triumph of the resurrection.  Maybe preachers aren’t talking about the Gospels as much, and maybe the parishioners don’t tell their friends and family either.  But we’ve moved into an age of easy, wide-spread, and instant communication.  We can talk about making ourselves know, or we could make it a goal and actually do it, make it real.

If we did that- I mean really reached out in an informed, decisive way with intent to reach a goal of just 3 new people a month, still, sooner or later we will put ourselves in the awkward position of having to explain Easter to someone. By the way, Fairfax county has more than 1,200,000, so 3 people would be .00026% of the population.  Naturally, doing this means explaining what resurrection is and how Jesus died and what brought about his death, and what he did that made certain people so angry.  And what the results are for us.  Not just a history lesson, but something that has an impact on our lives.

Like something that brings about a change of circumstances for every single human being on the planet for all time; something bigger, way bigger than Easter eggs and bunnies and, of course, chocolate. But chocolate companies know how to advertize, effectively, and they do it, and all they get out of it is grubby old money. Yuk.  They have to hire tax lawyers and have high stress levels and fair trade issues, paying their farmers sustainable wages and all kinds of things that keep them awake at night. Explaining how Easter impacts us personally is nothing next to all that hassle!  We’ve got it easy!

So, let’s start with the easy stuff. I figure if anyone knew about death, Roman soldiers knew. Their job at the crucifixion was to kill Jesus. First they beat and flogged him so badly that he was bleeding to death long before they nailed him to the cross.  It was a process designed to end in death.  Then they thrust a spear into his heart and lungs to eliminate any possible doubt.  It’s a no brainer.  Now, some of the parables and stories of Jesus have been arranged by Gospel authors to teach a particular lesson.  But, who would make up stories of Peter “the rock” betraying Jesus 3 times?  Lesson # 1: when we read Biblical eye witness accounts, full of details, about known historical events, like crucifixion, confirmed by all 4 Gospels, we really don’t have any reason to doubt it.

St. Paul evidently was sick and tired of answering this type of resurrection questions, because in his 1st letter to the church at Corinth, he really goes off on it.  He tells them to “Hold Fast” to what he had taught – that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried (because he was dead), and raised on the third day, as the scriptures had foretold, and he appeared to Peter, then to apostles, and then he appeared to more than 500 people at one time, and some of them were still, in his day, alive and talking about it. Then Jesus appeared to James and finally Paul himself.  He’s clear about it.

You know, unexpected things happen when you wear one of these collars. I’ve had people (plural, men and women, sane) tell me about Jesus appearing to them, and they describe him to me in the most personal of terms.  Jesus rose from the dead.   Lesson # 2: Jesus is alive.  Jesus is more alive than the cultures in my active and alive yogurt. You don’t get weirded about out that, you don’t go buy a microscope when you hear that, why is it so hard to accept, why should you be amazed for me to tell you that the same Jesus that raised Lazarus and the little girl and the widow’s son from the dead is alive?

Well, if this still troubles you, don’t feel bad, even St. Peter had some issues with it, even after spending years with Jesus, even after seeing the empty tomb and the burial cloths, with one rolled up and deliberately set aside. The problem was that he couldn’t open his mind up to it.  It can be a big jump from reading the text book (in this case, the scriptures), and understanding on a personal level.  We use cars, machinery, and electronic devices all the time and many of us have no real idea how they work or how they’re made.  We use them because they work, “believing” in them in a way, without understanding.

We’ve probably all been duped by a slimy salesperson, yet we don’t stop shopping. Do I ask too much when I say, “Believe, trust, pray”?  I don’t ask you embrace everything whispered in your ear at church, or every bit of church dogma or what you think your 4th grade religion teacher said; that might be a mistake.  Faith must be questioned and explored, and there is a learning curve involved if your want your faith to grow.  Lesson # 3 – open yourself to the possibilities -not just a historical Jesus on the pages of your Bible, but a real, living Jesus.

Finally, don’t get hung up on the “born again” thing. You were “born again” when the water was poured over you at your baptism.  If you weren’t baptized, come see me, I can fix that.  But approach it like a physicist.  Every action (baptism) must have an equal and opposite reaction.  And what is re-action to baptism?  It is Behavior filled with Belief!  (Makes me think of that great lemon cream in donuts – you can come up with your own image of Behavior filled with Belief, until it oozes out.) That is the authentic re-action to Baptism!

During Lent we read how Isaiah was so critical of people who performed the rituals of the church, yet they never lived their faith. In St. John’s letter (3:17-18), John wrote, “But if (we) have the world’s goods and see (our neighbors) in need, yet close (our) heart against them, how does God’s love abide in (us)?…Let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.” St. James (2:17) is even more direct.  He wrote, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  Last Lesson#4: The reaction to Easter is actions of love, mercy, and generosity.  Our minds must open, but so must our time, our wallets, and our compassion. That is what the Jesus of the Bible did, and the living Jesus does now, and what we as Christians are to do.  “By this, all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” Jesus said. (John 13:35)

So let’s recap what Easter means to us, and this is how we will do it: On Easter, our Tradition is to renew our baptismal promises. If you were baptized as a baby, you might not have known the words, so you get a chance to say it today.  If you need to be baptized, this is a great chance to practice for your big day.  We do this in a question-answer format, which starts on the bottom of page 65 of your Missal.  If you listen to what you are saying, it sounds very much like the Creed we usually say at this time, and I will sprinkle you with blessed baptismal water afterwards.   So please stand and turn to page 65.

St. Patrick and the Transfiguration

2nd Sunday of Lent, March 17, 2019

Genesis 15: 5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27 1-14; Philippians 3: 17-4:1; Luke 9: 28-36

Our Gospel today is one of those passages that you need a key to open. By that, I mean that it is written in symbols, a kind of Biblical code. Let’s go thru it, piece by piece.

“They went up the mountain to pray” –In the Old Testament, if God is in the sky (the “heavens”), then the higher you go up, the closer you are to God. In the scriptures, people often receive revelations from God on mountains.   Moses was given the Ten Commandments on a mountain; Elijah talked with God on a mountain.

“Jesus face changed and his clothing became dazzling white” – Jesus is portrayed in Luke as the New Moses. Remember that Moses’ face glowed after he came down the mountain with the tablets.  Now Jesus is radiant.  But, Moses just reflected God’s glory/light.  But Jesus actually radiates light; not reflecting God but he himself was the source of the light, just as God is. Also, remember that people with nothing but candles for light treasured light beyond our imagination.

“Moses and Elijah…appear.”- Moses represents the Law, while Elijah was a prophet who brought God’s words to the people- together they brought what was know about God.  They “spoke of the exodus Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem.”- It is important to know that the transfiguration occurred immediately after Jesus’ 1st prediction of his death and rising to the apostles.   Moses and Elijah discuss it as a planned event. It is an “exodus” in the sense that Jesus leads us, just as Moses led the Israelites from “slavery and bondage” to “newness of freedom”. Only we experience slavery as things like addictions and materialism.

“Peter, James & John had been overcome by sleep.” – I have a granddaughter who, when she was little, would fall sleep whenever curtain girl and her mother would visit. The girl was loud and rough and having her visit totally overwhelmed my shy, gentle granddaughter.  The apostles were overwhelmed, understandably unable to make sense of the scene in front of them.  Is it a dream? A hallucination?  Had they lost their minds?mountai  What is happening; what’s it mean?

“Peter suggests making tents and staying here” – but he misses the point; he’s so like…us. Later, after the resurrection, he will grasp the meaning of this experience and understand who Jesus is and what he has done.  Also, later Peter will have the Words that Jesus spoke and find that the Word is the same as the Jesus’ presence in a body or in a cloud. He will always have Jesus with him.

“A cloud came and cast a shadow” – another reference to Moses. A cloud covered tabernacle tent of the Israelites and filled it, and it was the presence of God.

“This is my chosen Son, listen to him.” – God is telling the apostles to listen to what? To the prediction of the crucifixion and resurrection. Now it has been spoken by Jesus & witnessed by Moses, Elijah, and God. The apostles have seen the Godly radiance of Jesus, and entered the cloud that was God.  Hearing, sight and touch have declared the truth of Jesus to them.   Their silence will end when they receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and they will spend the rest of their lives teaching and testifying about Jesus to the ends of the earth.  Luke writes this to teach us what the apostles learned, and wants our reaction to be the same as theirs.

This passage is read during Lent to remind us of some things. While we don’t need to climb a mountain to pray, we do need space and time set aside for prayer.  Prayer is often when God reveals things to us.  We need to pray every bit as much as to sleep or to eat.  God gives us to revelations as we read scripture or hear things as we listen to religious programs, movies or lectures. We can touch rosary beads or a pocket cross, or other religious articles.  But Jesus is always with us, and learning to see or hear or touch him is necessary. We must take the time to open ourselves to him.

I would like to hold up for you today St. Patrick, for today is his memorial. We have a short spiritual autobiography he wrote, the Confessio.  From this we have some facts, while many of the popular traditions about the snakes and the shamrocks may be legend.

St. Patrick was kidnapped as a slave by Irish raiders in Britain when he was 16, and held as a slave for 6 long, hard years.  He chose to rely on his faith to get him through that.  By a dream, he was shown the way to escape, nearly starving to death before getting back to his family.

He then studied under St. Germanus, who consecrated him later as a Bishop. Again he had a dream, and was literally called to return to Ireland.  For a long time, he struggled with that call.  He felt he was not up to the task, not worthy and certainly scared.  But once he went, he was very successful teaching the faith, baptizing and confirming the native Picts of Ireland as well as the Anglo-Saxons.

Which is not to say that he was safe all the time. He wrote that he lived in constant danger of martyrdom.  Daily he expected to be violently killed or enslaved by the non-Christian Irish.  He had to endure charges by British Clergy who claimed he wanted to be a Bishop only to inflate his pride.  In fact, his writings prove him to be a most humble-minded man, continuously giving thanks to God for sending him to the same people who had enslaved him as a boy.

His Latin was poor, and it took much effort to translate his book and to align what he wrote with known history. But his writing shows a man of truth and simplicity of the rarest quality.  He bared his soul in an unusually frank and honest way.  Even D.A. Binchy, a scholar who is one of Patrick’s most severe critics, wrote, “The moral and spiritual greatness of the man shines through every stumbling sentence.”

So we come full circle to a Saint who also “shines” with the glory of God. He, like the apostles, after a period of fear and reluctance, took the Word of God to people, exposing themselves to harm and violence. They all cultivated their deep relationship with God and clung to their faith as a way to sustain their lives, and changed the history of the world as a result.  When they might have slept safely at home, they awoke and followed God’s call.

We tell the stories of transfiguration and of Saints not only to learn how to follow Jesus, but to question our own lives. Are our lives a time of sleep to avoid the truth and trials we are meant to face?  Do we miss the meaning of what we see?  Do we focus on our troubles or do we focus on God when we are troubled?  Do we really listen to God?  Do we love our enemies? God “frees” us in the most unusual ways to do things we would have never considered otherwise.  Peter had one thing right – “It is good that we are here.”  Where you are supposed to be?

Blessed or Not?

6th Week Ordinary Time, Febuary 2-17-2019

Jeremiah 17:5-8; Psalm 1: 1-6;  1 Corthinthians 15: 12, 16-20; Luke 6: 17, 20-20

Jeremiah was a prophet in the early 500’s BC. Even before that, the beatitude was a standard format of Jewish teachers and prophets.  Today we read beatitudes from both Jeremiah and Psalm 1, which compare the person who delights in God to the wicked.  They say what is wise or foolish, in vivid and concrete terms.

Jeremiah says those who are blessed (happy) trust and hope in God. They are like a tree beside the water.  This is a symbol used in our Psalm and throughout the Old Testament. Despite the heat and drought, the tree does not go into survival mode, because the water is enough to give it strength to flourish as well as support others with food. This describes people who flourish, do good works (fruit), and who have connected to sources of support, encouragement, and strength.  The beatitudes describe the lives of Godly people vs. those who live only for themselves.

St Paul picks up the theme of the difference of those who love God and those who don’t believe. In our reading today, Paul is addressing questions about the truth of the resurrection of Christ.  He says if all we have is this life on earth, we are the most pitiable people of all- more pitiable than a barren bush in salty soil.  But, Christ is alive, the first to be raised from the dead, and we will follow him.  Paul would say that we are the tree and Christ is the water, always there beside us.

But now, we get to the fun part, the Gospel. Jesus went to the mountain to pray, and spent the entire night in prayer.  In the morning, he calls his followers around him and selects 12 to be the apostles.  But the Word was out, he had been spotted, and a very large crowd, “a great multitude,” Luke says, had gathered on the plain below the mountain, people from Judea, Jerusalem, the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  They came to see him for themselves, to touch him in hopes of healing, and to hear him teach.

This is not the way Matthew described the scene. Matthew had Christ high on the hill, to remind us of Moses.  Luke describes Jesus as down with the crowd, accessible, touchable. The two Gospels even quote Jesus differently.  Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”   It takes on a more spiritual, theological tone, loftier, if you will.

Luke writes, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”  It is more literal, more concrete, more about life status, circumstances, the trials and demands of living, more “down to earth”.

Which one is right? They both are.  They both have a message for us.  There is no reason to try to fit them in the same box.  That is one gift of having four different Gospels.  Each writer tells the story differently to meet the needs of different groups and situations in different places and times.  They all perfectly agree that Christ came to teach us how to live, to love God and one another, to forgive our sins; Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.

So, what is Luke’s message? One of my favorite homilists, Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, describes beatitudes as, “short, two-part blessings.” Like our Psalm says: “Blessed is one who delights in the law of the Lord, whatever he does, prospers.”  But Jesus, like Jesus so often does, changes it up.  He blesses the poor, the hungry, and the people on the fringe!

In that day, being obese was a blessing, making it obvious to everyone that you had more than enough food. Being wealthy was considered a blessing by the Lord.  Jesus seems to reverse these.  Being a target for insults- well, that hasn’t changed so much, then & now, it still means you take your faith seriously, you fail to “go with the flow,” or that you don’t lower your morals to reflect whatever you see on stage, screen and advertisement.

At any rate, when the people heard Jesus’ beatitudes, they were stunned! aghast! Well, the rich, the well-fed and the popular were stunned.  They had become accustomed to rewards and honors, to having more than enough, considered it their due.  It’s an easy trap to fall into when you have no regular, personal interface with the poor.  Blaming the poor and hungry for their own plight was an easy way to stifle any guilt they might feel. They had set aside anything in their scriptures about loving neighbors. But now they must consider that they were spending their due of surplus and opulence, they were wasting their lives without thought to the future, and their “goodness” was as false as the false prophets. They have been found out and much too soon will experience emptiness and grief. When you are on top, there is no where to go but down.  Fame, food, fortune, they are all fleeting.

But what you thought about Jesus’ beatitudes was different, depending who you were. Righteous or not, most people work their whole lives hoping to achieve a pleasant life, with plenty, with a sense of pride. If you were poor, hungry, and insulted, then Jesus brought a startling surprise.  Jesus knew your worth.  Jesus was saying he understood if you felt like life was a terrible economic and social “jail.” BUT it was not your fault. The cell door is open. You will be an insider in God’s kingdom, you will laugh and eat, you will be honored and rewarded; you will rejoice and leap for joy.  Things will not forever remain as they are.

Jesus routinely gave clear commands. When he told us to love a Samaritan whom we had never met before, and pay for his needs out of our own pockets as quickly as we would for the guy next door that we really like, clearly he was giving us advice, even directing us to act. Jesus here is not even offering any judgment on our lack of social justice.  He is not asking us to do anything.  He’s simply offering a mirror to look into, to recognize if our feet are on the ground and our values are realistic.  Jesus in fact, offers a blessing to us all, at the bottom of the social scale or at the top.  No one stays at the top forever. In an hour, every material thing you own can be gone in a fire, your reputation can be smeared, your spouse can clear out the bank accounts and disappear.  It is indeed a blessing to be taught not to become too dependent on your social status or your “stuff”.

On the other hand, it is also a blessing to believe that you have value, a value which remains constant if you are in rags or a designer ball gown with a diamond tiara. It is worth getting up again tomorrow and doing your best, for tomorrow is always a new day when you can make a difference.  I believe that hope does, in fact, spring eternal, and that there are greater rewards in life than having filet mignon and champagne for dinner.   Some people find more joy in sitting vigil with a dying person or teaching a child to read and eating peanut butter out of the jar.

We are not fully in charge of much of anything, but, as Rev. Taylor concluded, “Blessed are you who loose(n ) your grip on the way things are, for God shall lead you in the way things shall be.” I agree, and I think St. Luke also was telling us to relax our grip on things a little and seek to God a little harder.

 

 

Flipping Greatness Upside Down

29th Sunday of Ordinary time, 10-21-2018

Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-20, 22; Hebrews 4:14-16;  Mark 10:35-45

We left Jesus last week saying, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Then, for the third time, Jesus predicts his coming death. He says, “…the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests…and will (be) condemned to death…they will mock him and scourge Him and spit on Him and kill Him.  And on the third day He will rise again.”

If you remember, the first time (8:31) Jesus said this, Peter scolded Jesus for saying such a thing. Jesus compared him to Satan, and accused Peter of tempting him as Satan did in the desert.  The second time (9:31), everyone was afraid to ask any questions.  Now (10: 32), James and John oddly choose to ask Jesus for a favor immediately after Jesus proclaims his coming death the 3rd time.  It’s more like a demand that Jesus do “whatever they ask”.  Have John and James not paid attention to his teaching about the first being last, and the last first?

So what do they want? What immediately comes to mind is power, prestige, to be “great”.  The 1st Nicene Council was in 325, after Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire.  The historical records include who sat on the right and the left of the Emperor Constantine.   They were highly contested places to sit,  won by strong arm political maneuvering – and you can be assured the man who sat on the right of the Emperor was the one who promoted the winning theology which resulted in the first Canon Laws of the Church. Were James and John doing some serious political moves to be leaders when the time came for Jesus to defeat Rome and take over the government?  Seems like a timely passage to be reading just before a hotly contested election, doesn’t it?

Jesus warns them that they don’t understand the enormity of their request. Yet they agree to drink the cup of suffering, and to be submerged in the baptism of death.  And of course, word leaks out about their demands, and anger and jealousy erupt among the rest of the apostles, so much so that Jesus must sit them down and straighten them out.

Jesus does not deny that there is rank in the Kingdom of God.  But it is not a result of shrewd political maneuvers.  Jesus reminds the apostles of their Roman Conquerors, and how they chose leaders.  It was a corrupt system, and the Jews were subject to men who were anxious to “lord it over” them.  The apostles are close to trying to do the same thing.   It is always interesting, and usually depressing, when there is a shift of political power. Once people gain power, they tend to try to suppress other people. Power is a breeding ground for unrestrained ambition and jealousy.

Or perhaps I am terribly wrong about James and John. I was reading an article by Eleonore Stump, Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University. She said her son-in-law read this Gospel and immediately understood it to mean something other than what we usually think. He said, that after Jesus had announced his coming death three times, James and John understood he meant it. Perhaps they were ready to be on the right and left of Jesus when he was crucified, which might account for the odd time they approached him. But God had already chosen those at the right and left of Jesus – two unknown, nameless, lowly criminals were on his right and his left. One of them did, in fact, follow Jesus to eternal life.  Perhaps the other apostles misinterpreted the request made by James and John, seeing it all through a lens of their own ambition, as people traditionally do when reading this.

Jesus offers another way to live, another way to become great, turning the entire measure of greatness around and flipping the scale of greatness upside down. “Whoever”, he says, “desire to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever desires to be first shall be slave of all”.  Servant!  Slave!  Is he telling us to become great by being the lowest of the social order?  Inwardly, we wince.  “No one could do that”, we think.  Jesus hears our doubt.  He responds, “For even (I) did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give (my) life as a ransom for the many.” It is so counter to our culture it takes our breath away, and we feel a dark urge to not take it too seriously.

Our reading from Hebrew offers us reassurance that Jesus is in fact serious and does understand our weaknesses, as he too was subjected to temptation. So we may run to Jesus with confidence, for only in his perfect power, we will receive mercy and grace, and find the true greatness of service to each other.

First…and Last

28th Sunday Ordinary Time, year B, 10-14-2018

Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30

Our 1st and 2nd readings today prepare us for the Gospel.  I would paraphrase our first reading like this: “ I would rather have (Wisdom) than to be King;  having riches is nothing in comparison with being wise. Wisdom is far greater than pearls or diamonds; and gold, next to Wisdom, is just a little sand.  Beyond even health and beauty, I love Wisdom. I chose to have wisdom rather than the light of the sun. ”

How many times have you heard people say that your health is more valuable than anything else? How many times have you talked with someone who blocked off their beauty appointments before anything else on their calendar?  How many people do you know that valued their job so highly that their spouse divorced them and their children despised them? We all have met people who have wanted wealth so badly they gave up their integrity and cheated their boss or their customers.  I could name names of people I have seen make those decisions, and listened to people who later realized how they had hurt themselves and those they loved by their choices.

In the readings from Hebrews, we find, “The Word of God is living and effective, sharper than any 2-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit…able to discern…thoughts of the heart.” It reminds me of the movie, “The Bodyguard” with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. Houston treats Costner’s sword carelessly, like a stage prop, but when he gently tosses her silk scarf into the air, to her amazement, the blade of the sword silently slices it cleanly in half as it floats down.  Only then does she recognize the sharpness of the blade.

In our Gospel, we find the Word of God, in the form of Jesus, penetrating the mind and motives of a man. This man brings so much to like and admire to the scene.   He is full of ambition, intelligent, obedient to the Law of Moses, honest and accomplished, and seeking eternal life.  He runs up, not afraid, or embarrassed, and kneels in respect to Jesus.  He is enthusiastic, he willingly comes to be taught, and he recognizes the authority of Jesus.

We would quickly label him as a man to watch. He has already amassed wealth, he takes action when he wants something, speaks confidently, and has the attitude of one whose name will be known to many. And he seeks out opportunity.  But he does not know how to “inherit eternal life.”  It seems he has found something he desires that he cannot obtain.

However, when he addresses Jesus, he reveals a lack of understanding – he calls Jesus a “Good Teacher”. The term means he admires the skill of Jesus as a teacher/rabbi.  He believes that “goodness” is something that we do, that our own effort creates.  He does not know yet that “goodness” comes from God, as a gift. He also asks, “What must I DO that I may” (get) eternal life”.  While he is willing to work hard, to pay, to earn eternal life, he does not understand that it, too, is a gift, a gift from the Cross, which it is not his to “earn”.

He longs for something that he does not find in the market place or buy from merchants; he knows there is something spiritual about it, for he has come to a traveling teacher who speaks of God in a way that no one else can.  He also senses that what he needs to be fulfilled will not rust or tarnish or die; it must be lasting, “eternal”.

I am on the Standing Committee for CACINA, which interviews people who wish to begin the process of preparing to be ordained as a Deacon or Priest. I can imagine how Jesus might have felt about this man.  Who wouldn’t want this man on your team of clergy?  This the type of person that could be someone you would want to build congregations with; a person who would draw parishioners from miles around, who could deliver the Good News so very well, who would work relentlessly for the Kingdom.  Mark says that Jesus loved him.  This encounter is so very personal, so unusual, so unlike the bitter debates with the Pharisees.

“One thing you lack,” Jesus says, and answers the man’s question, telling him how to have treasure in heaven, how to be fulfilled, how to find that which he is looking for.  Sell your stuff, he says, let go of the stuff, give the money away, release yourself from the hopeless burden of accumulating things that will not last and distract you from the gifts God gives. Then you will be ready to face your death, ready to give of yourself without counting the cost…and follow me.   There was no more conversation.  The man leaves, sad.  He had a lot of stuff, and he was willing to be in bondage to that stuff, he was willing to be a slave to it.  And Jesus said with compassion, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”

Here is where we need an historical note. The common Jewish theology of the day was that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing on a person.  Think about fasting – if you cannot afford food, you cannot fast.  Only the wealthy could fast.  The poor starved.  Think about giving alms – you must have wealth to give to the poor.  Wealth created the ability to be spiritual.  Wealth gave the opportunity to pay for the ritual cleansings,  and buy the animals to be sacrificed for your sins.  Wealth opened the way to heaven, or so they thought.

Now Jesus turns it all around. “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”  He continues with a metaphor from his time (and has been found in other literature from the period), “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Teachers then especially loved using enormous exaggeration for the purpose of teaching, and a camel was likely the largest animal people there would have encountered.  It is the contrast between the huge camel and the tiny eye that Jesus is going for. Some imaginative speakers tried to make this expression into a tiny doorway of sorts several years ago.  Forget all that, and focus on what Jesus is trying to tell us: that only with God’s gifts of love and faith and forgiveness do we enter heaven.  Nothing else works, regardless of how grand and glorious our works and our possessions might be.

Peter thinks, Hey! The apostles had given everything they had to be with Jesus! Jesus responds with an assurance of immense blessings – hundredfold! – and then sums it all up in one phrase: “Many who are first will be last, and the last, first.”  Let us be last to depend on wealth to open heaven, and the last to rely on self-created goodness. Let us be the first to praise God’s love and forgiveness, and the first to be thankful for all those who have carried their cross so that we might have faith.

 

Love, not Legalism

27th Sunday Ordinary Time 10-7-18

Genesis 2:18-24; Ps 128:1-6 ; Hebrews 2:9-11;Mark 10:2-16

These readings are often used to preach about the ideal marriage. Marriage is a life-long job, requiring patience, gentleness, compromise, graciousness to sometimes carry more than your half of the relationship, and maturity to weather the hard times.  I have been married and divorced twice, so that is all I have to say about marriage.   But this is an interesting Gospel today, and I do have a few things to say about it, for it is NOT primarily about marriage.

It is about what we will call “Legalism”. I don’t like labels, but legalism is generally defined as depending on laws rather than… faith.  In Galatians 3:3, Paul writes, “How foolish can you be?  After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles…by…the law, or because you have heard about Christ and believe?” Another problem with legalism is that someone is always blamed.  The people of CACINA say that we “are Catholic without the guilt”.  What if we could approach issues without finding fault? “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:1

Jesus and the disciples leave Galilee for the last time on their way to Jerusalem.  Jesus has spent time on the road privately teaching his disciples, and discussing his upcoming death.  Their public ministry begins again now, and the Pharisees arrive from Jerusalem in an attempt to justify their plot to kill him.  They are “testing him;” Mark uses the same word he used in Chapter One, when Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days and enduring “testing” by Satan. He is clear that the Pharisees’ intent is evil.

The topic of divorce was a minefield for the Jews. If Jesus denied the legality of divorce, he will sin by contradicting the Law of Moses.  If he tried to make divorce a morality issue, he will be following in John the Baptist’s footsteps.  John was beheaded by Herod for that approach.  Various groups of Rabbis had positions on if only men could ask for a divorce, the acceptable grounds for divorce, and so forth & so on, endlessly.  The Pharisees thought for sure they could trap Jesus in this web of opinion; surely Jesus would offend someone.

Jesus responds to their question about divorce by asking “What did Moses command you?” Moses tolerated divorce as an existing custom for the purpose of stabilizing the community.  But God said in our first reading, that two people are to “become one flesh.” Jesus, Moses, and the Pharisees all understood that God’s command did not include divorce.  Once again, Jesus defeated the Pharisees’ ploy by using the Scriptures to prove their question was not sincere, only a political trick.  But that left the disciples riled up about the issue of divorce.  They later privately ask Jesus, and he simply states a fact: “whoever divorces their spouse and marries another, commits adultery.”

Is Jesus throwing us under the bus? About 35-40% of all Americans who have been married are divorced. If you have read the Gospels, Jesus never throws any sincere person who comes to him under the bus! Read Mark 2:17: “Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do.  I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners.” Are we not aware of the times Jesus outright forgave the sins of people? In Luke (19:10) Jesus said: “For the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost.” And in John 12: 47, “If anyone hears me and does not obey me, I am not his judge—for I have come to save the world and not to judge it.” We always start each Mass with, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  There is great power in those words! In Mark 3:28-30, Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, all sins and blasphemes will be forgiven … (except) blasphemes against the Holy Spirit.”

So here it is: Jesus said that divorce is wrong, and forgiveness is waiting for all who confess and repent. It doesn’t seem like a secret to me!  In fact, I think the voice that accuses any divorcee of committing a sin that denies them the sacraments, is the voice of evil.  Jesus responds to that voice in John 10:10: “(Satan) comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  Revelation 12: 10-11 says it again, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers (and sisters) has been thrown down… And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb…”

Jesus even stopped those who would stone a woman “caught” in adultery, with these words: “I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again.”  Jesus makes clear that adultery is a sin, but forgiveness is freely given.

All in all, our reading is another trap for Jesus to deny God or the Scriptures, set by men who already have decided to break God’s law themselves by killing Jesus. This time the issue chosen to bait the trap is divorce.  But Jesus prevails by knowing Scripture and knowing what his mission is.

Marriage is one sign of the social nature of humans in which the “two shall become as one.” Another sign is the Eucharist, for as Paul says in Romans 12:5: “We, though many, are one body in Christ…” Fr. Gerald Darring wrote, “Marriage and Eucharist are signs of sharing lives and living (in unity).  The unity of humankind is shattered every day by the evil of injustice: racism, sexism, poverty, hunger, homelessness, war. We are constantly violating the fundamental principle: ‘Let no man separate what God has joined’.  God has joined us in a society of brothers and sisters because it is not good for us to be alone: let no one separate that society through injustice.”

Law will never unify us, but love will.  I said last week, that Jesus was always making the circle larger, always including people that were different, who had experiences unlike the others.  He did not make laws and rules to bring those people together, but taught them to love God and love their neighbors like themselves.  “Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.” (1Cor 13:13)