Meditations on the 2nd Sunday of Lent

2nd Sunday of Lent 2-25-18

Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Psalm: 116:10, 15-19; Romans 8:31b-34; Mark 9:2-10

Many primitive cultures have practiced human sacrifice, including the ancient tribes in the Middle East. Archeologists tell us that the area outside of Jerusalem, the valley of Gahenna, was once a place where human sacrifice was practiced.  It was a place that provoked great fear. These very early people instinctively knew that to sacrifice a human life was the greatest and most supreme sacrifice that could be made. More grapes and wheat could be grown. More lambs and goats could be bred. But humans came only from the mysterious event of birth.

I am always a little sickened by the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. It seems to go against every thing we hold as right and decent as well as everything we believe about a loving God. Even the ending, when the ram appears and is used as the sacrifice, leaves me uneasy about the story. Nevertheless, since we are told that God is good, and since Isaac was a child who was brought to life by a miracle, we should know that Abraham was right to trust God.

Sacrifice was a significant ritual for the Jewish people. Historians tell us that the blood from the lambs ran in red rivers down the streets of Jerusalem from the temple during Passover. We usually think of gifts as benefiting the person they are given to. At Passover, animals were sacrificed so that the givers could receive something valuable; as a community they recalled being protected from the plagues God put on the Egyptians, and thereby were freed from slavery and lead into the Promised Land. Animal sacrifice ended when the Temple was destroyed, only some 30 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, but a ritualized image of sacrifice remains in our own Mass.

The Lectionary uses all this to set the tone, to prepare us to think deeply about the crucifixion, which occurred at Passover. It is framed in the immensity of the thought of a loving and all-powerful God willingly sacrificing his son to a frenzied mob motivated by little more than silver coins and the desire for power. That mob continues to haunt us; too much of human interaction is still mob mentality, where superficial information and ignorance leave people open to faulty conclusions and horrific actions.

It is not hard to understand why Pontius Pilot handed over Jesus to the mob to be crucified – giving them what they wanted was the only way to avoid a full-blown riot. The worst part of the Good Friday reading of the Passion is when the congregation is expected to read the words the crowd spoke: “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” At that point, I always say a prayer that I will never be part of a mob chanting like that.

I recently heard from a woman who had lost both her husband and her only daughter within 2 months. Naturally, she was in shock. Among other things, I suggested that she lean on the Blessed Mother, because she too, as a widow, had lost her precious child in the most terrible of circumstances.   It was an image that helped this grieving woman.

Likewise, the Lectionary gives us the story of Abraham and Isaac to help us understand the idea of God losing his precious and sinless son to mob who had no respect for his life. At the same time, our Gospel reading reassures us that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God. Jesus is transfigured, and his clothes become an unearthly dazzling white; he talks with Elijah and Moses. God says Jesus is “my beloved Son.” Afterwards, Jesus warns his disciples not to tell anyone about this except when the “Son of Man had risen from the dead,” which confuses the disciples even more.

So what are we to take away from this muddle of sacrifice and death, alongside transfiguration? The Abraham story assures us that God’s promises can be trusted, even when the situation is dire. Indeed, the children of Abraham did become as many as the stars in the sky, through his son Isaac.   The transfiguration story is also to build trust for the apostles, because very shortly their faith will be badly shaken. Jesus is the son of God and will rise from the dead. The apostles could trust in this message from God, as can we, for the risen Christ is the primary foundation of Christianity. If the 2nd Sunday of Lent were to have a name, it would be “trust”. This Lent, let us set aside our fears of the future, and trust that Creator, Son and Holy Sprit will be with us as we travel together through these 40 days leading to Easter Morning, and beyond.

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The Long and Short of Mark 1

6th Sunday in Ordinary time, 2-11-18

Lev 13:1-2, 44-46; Ps: 32:1-2, 5, 11; 1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45

This is the last Sunday before the start of Lent. For the last three weeks, we have had sequential readings from the Gospel of Mark.  In fact, we have read nearly all of Chapter 1.  Mark has given us a great deal of information about Jesus, the purpose and style of his mission, his unique authority to teach and heal, and his intensity and power.  Today, I want to recap these readings, because I believe they are an excellent entry into Lent as well as a very solid base for expanding the ministry of Holy Trinity.

The first 14 verses of Mark tell us about the baptism of Jesus and his time of temptation in the desert. Jesus’ first words recorded by Mark are, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” You will remember that when the ashes are placed on your forehead on Ash Wednesday,  one or both of these things are said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” or “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”  (Now we know where that came from.) The second one is not as familiar, maybe because it seems a little vague; we may not be sure what is being asked of us.

If someone calls you and says, “I have good news – our baby boy was born this morning,” you understand that not only is the message good news, but the baby himself is good news. The Jews had waited about 1,000 years for the arrival of the Messiah.  Now, Mark tells us, the Messiah, Jesus, is teaching and healing and present with his people.  Not only do we find the announcement good, but Jesus’ message is good news, as is his very self.  “Gos” means good and “Spel” means story, or news.   Jesus, and all he says and does, is the gospel.   We are to repent and shed our sin along with shedding the attitude of waiting.

Jesus acts this out by calling Simon, Andrew, James and John from their fishing nets, and “immediately” they leave their boats and go with him.   For them to do that was very counter-cultural, even disrespectful of their family, and, frankly, just plan weird, even for us.  When is that last time you put down your pen on your desk and walked away from your job?  Can you imagine the power in Jesus’ command to, “Come with me”?  Have you ever felt anything like that?  Has God ever put that kind of message in your heart?  What would you do to enliven and built up Holy Trinity if that happened to you?

And then, Jesus, along with his followers, went to the synagogue. Jesus teaches there, “as one having authority”…and not just as a scribe, or scholar.  He commands an unclean spirit to leave a man, and it does.  Everyone is astonished and amazed.  Interesting, isn’t it – the unclean spirits know and obey Jesus in an instant, and we, well, often not so much.  Is it because we haven’t grasped what he asks us to do?  Or do we not know him well enough?

Jesus is then on his way to Simon/Peter’s house the same day. He restores Peter’s mother in-law to health; not only health, but a position of dignity and even fame.  As a widow in declining health, she is a burden on the family and is fearful for the future.  Jesus (immediately) “helpers her up”, says Mark.  What an understatement!

She is able to be a hostess who exceeds the high bar of Mediterranean hospitality. The house becomes the site of all kinds of healings, and her own healing will be known as long as the Bible is read.  Her life had been changed, forever different.  Do you doubt that Jesus could change Holy Trinity into a thriving place of worship and impact the community?

Next, Jesus touches a leper and says, “Be made clean.” This story is full of implications. First, the story came to us in Greek, and Greek uses verbs in ways that we don’t.  In this case, “Be made clean” means, “Someone else will make you clean.”  In other words, God is doing the healing.  Jesus is not claiming this power as his own, just as he does not offer to heal the widow, but helps her move away from the sick bed.  It is a great portrayal of Jesus as the obedient and humble son acting as the conduit of God’s power.  We can be the conduit of God’s power, which is often found in humble prayer, worship, and obedience.

Second, just as “a cold” can mean many possible illnesses, a “leper” in that day could have many different skin conditions. But they all had one thing in common: the person had ugly sores on their body.  Any type of physical disfiguration was suspect then, and made the person “ritually unclean”.  No animal with any physical imperfections could be used for sacrifice in the temple.  Likewise, no person with sores could worship in the temple.  To add insult to injury, the cause of illness was presumed to be sin. The person was blamed for their own illness, and they were viewed as moral pollution in the community.

Because it was seen as a “sin” issue, the Priest banished lepers and declared them healed. The isolation and blame could be worse than the sores.  This leper somehow knows and believes in Jesus.  Jesus, evidently, was a cafeteria Jew, because he followed the Jewish law in Leviticus and sent the leper to the priest; but he touched the leper in pity, thereby breaking another law as he restored the man to wholeness.  Jesus put himself at risk of being mobbed by suffering people in hopes of healing.  He told the leper to be silent, not wanting a reputation as a miracle man/ wonder worker.  Remember, he came to urge repentance and belief.  He knew his goal.  What is our goal, here in this parish?

So, to be like Jesus, we must be short on presumption and long on pity. We must be dependent on God’s power and know it.  We must use God’s eyes to see past the sores on skin and see the sores of the heart.  We must focus on our goal and honor the directives of God, not culture.  With prayerful discernment we must be prepared to act for the glory of God when we are called.  Old presumptions may require repentance, and belief may need to be strengthened.  Our path forward as a church may bring us change, but we can trust it will be “Good News”.

Homily February 9, 2018-the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

6 sun 4As you might know, the middle east is very tribal and thus very family and community 6sun3centered. In Jesus’ time, it also meant extended families. So in a village or town, there might be a large extended family. To declare someone unclean, was a banishment from community and led to a life of solitude and loneliness. The skin diseases mention, have come to be translated as leprosy. But in actuality it is not referring to the disease we call leprosy or Hansen’s disease. But the point of today’s gospel is that the leper actually went against the laws of Leviticus and approached Jesus. He approached and asked for healing. Jesus had pity on him and reached out and 6th suntouched him and mindful of the law, told him to go and see the priests. Jesus’ touch was a healing of body and spirit. It was a welcome to return to his community, his family and friends. This, I think, makes clear that we are are not meant to be alone and pushed aside and be alone. As Christians we choose to be in a community and be welcomed into a social and spiritual life. The joy of the good news should have us reaching out to others.

Why Did He Do It?

5th Sunday Ordinary time,  2-4-18

Job7:1-4, 6-7; Psalm 147: 1-6, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, is credited as one of the main points of emergence for the feminist movement.  She encouraged many other women to enter professional jobs and employment in business, industry and government.

It was a seismic shift for the American culture which produced a broad range of response. Some screamed that a mother taking young children to day care was an evil rejection of nature and responsibility.  Some demanded that all women must be employed to find their dignity and purpose.   Women had to find a balance between the extremes of being limited in their options or trying to lead both the life of a corporate leader and the mom who did everything.

So today we hear the story of Simon/ Peter’s mother-in-law. It tells us that Peter is not the simple fisherman.  He has a wife.  There is no mention of children, but the idea of Peter, Jr., drifts thru our minds.  Is this a peaceful house or is the mother-in-law having some kind of stress reaction to Peter’s coming into the house with a bunch of hungry men?  We could construct lots of different scenarios, but this is a reading from the Gospel of Mark, and Mark tells his stories in a straightforward way.  We will not be graced with more details.

However, we do know that Jesus is “immediately” told that Mrs. Peter’s mother is sick with a fever. Here we meet the first problem with culture.  We shrug, and say, “So?”  Put her in the car, take her down to the Minute clinic, get her some antibiotics and she’ll be fine by tomorrow, right?  Wrong, of course.  This is 30 AD.  No car, no urgent care, no diagnosis, no pharmaceuticals.  Just fear of what might be wrong, fear of long term disabling decline.

And Jesus “grasped her hand and helped her up”. The fever was gone and “she waited on them”.  Under our liberated breath, we mutter, “Couldn’t they have just gone to the store or drive thru and gotten something to eat?  Did he heal her just so she could fix them dinner?”

Well, as harsh as it sounds, it is a reasonable question. Why did Jesus heal this woman? And knowing that a horde of people who were physically and psychologically sick were about to gather outside the house, why would Jesus submit this woman to having “the whole town gathered at her door”?  To find the answer, we must put on the brakes, back up, and reset the clock.  One of the least productive things we can do to a good Bible story is to interpret it in the light of today instead of understanding what was happening in that day, in time past.  That is how to understanding what Jesus’ intent was with the Mother-in-law, and with us.

In that day, a woman worked from sun up to sun set to feed and clothe the family. From growing the food to preparing it to keeping the fire going to hauling water, to raising sheep for wool, weaving cloth, sewing clothing, washing  – you get the idea, sort of.  I doubt if any of us have ever had to create food, clothing, and shelter, everything, from scratch.  It is over-whelming to a 21st century suburban middle class American when you think about it.

The point is that women then had no other options available to them. And did you miss the fact that Peter’s mother-in-law would be a widow, or she would not be living in his house?  She was totally dependent on her family, and without them she would die, quite literally, of starvation or lack of shelter.  In exchange for life itself, she is more than eager to take on the tasks of the household and take pride in using all those skills she learned through the years.

But she was sick, and suddenly not an asset but a burden. She was terrified.  Was Jesus restoring her to health for his convenience?  No! Not at all. He restored her to her place in society, a place where her dignity was secure and she could be admired for her skills.  She was freed to be able to provide hospitality to her guests and the community; she was eager to share this with the whole village.  She, an older woman, was the center of a miracle, the first sick person to be healed by Jesus, the example that everyone would remember.  She was no longer just a widow whose prime had passed; now, she was someone.

Jesus continued to cure, to heal, to restore the sick to their places of wholeness.  That is an idea that transcends culture and time.  In our day, being productive in a job offers people independence and a boost to self-image.  When someone is released to go back to work after an injury or illness, once again enjoy their place in society and feel they are “part of life”.

The same is true for spiritual healing. In fact, we could talk about Jesus’ time on earth by thinking about redemption and restoration.  His death on the cross was a “one-time forever victory” which redeemed everyone. He “saved” us and opened a way to God’s love and forgiveness.  His teaching and actions restored us to how God created us to be, and he commanded us to continue that restoration with others.

It is the first responsibility of the Church to share the message of the Good News of Easter with people.  Discipleship begins when people discover the freeing power of redemption, by being re-connected with God’s forgiveness.  Worship and prayer are not an obligation; instead, worship & prayer are the natural language of those who are redeemed.

The second responsibility of the Church, that is us, is the work of restoring the sick, the addicted, the poor, the marginalized, the lost, to wholeness. We call that outreach, or mission.  Restoration is also called the “coming of the kingdom”.  If “saving the world” is redemption, then “changing the world” is restoration.  Deep love and dynamic caring are not a social norm; instead they are the natural behavior of the restored.

Those are big ideas, but crucial ideas to the growth and success of Holy Trinity and any Christian community. I will be sharing concrete and practical information about them with you in the weeks ahead. So, remember what Jesus did after he healed this widow – he prayed.  Please pray for our church that it may be a place of redemption and restoration.

Choosing Who Sits Next to Me

 3rd Sunday of  Ordinary  time, January 21, 2018

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm: 25:4-9; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

So let’s start with 2 questions this morning. Who here has ever suffered through a homily that claimed Jonah was a true story?  Given that our Gospel is about Jesus calling apostles, who has been taught the primary topic of our 1st reading is about the call of Jonah as a prophet and how important it is to be obedient to God’s call?

Jonah is a kind of fable; it is like Aesop’s fables in the way it uses fish and cattle to add some humor to it. It’s also like Jesus’ parables, since it is a short story that has a twist in it that we might not see coming. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria (not to be confused with Syria), the most ruthless and feared nation in the Middle East at the time.  The Assyrians destroyed Israel in 721 BC.  They conquered through particularly brutal military tactics, including wholesale slaughter, and are remembered as the first people to attempt to rule the entire world.  That sheds some light on why Jonah was particularly unwilling for this mission.  He likely figured his probability of being tortured and killed upon entering Ninevah about 110%.  Besides, the Assyrians were deeply hated mortal enemies of the Israelites, not people he wanted to sit next to.   God wants to save their souls?  Jonah can’t possibly see this mission as worth his life.

So when God called him, he understandably ran to find the first boat sailing in the opposite direction. Even the sailors, who worshiped idols and nature-type gods, understood Jonah’s God better than Jonah did. It is telling that in his prayer for God’s help, he says, “Those who worship vain idols forsake their source of mercy, but I, with resounding praise, will sacrifice to you, Lord.”   In fact, the sailors found mercy by throwing Jonah into the sea, while vain Jonah neither praised God nor was willing to sacrifice much of anything. The mood is set when the whale “spews Jonah up the shore;” even the whale wants nothing to do with him.

So God tells Jonah, for a 2nd time, to announce the message that God will give him.  God has to give Jonah a script of the message of repentance to read, since Jonah has clearly no desire to save the Assyrians, no interest in sharing the Word of God with them, and no love for them as neighbors. But, wonder of wonders, they repent.  And God forgave them, and decided not to destroy the city.  Jonah was livid with anger and told God off.  “Isn’t this what I told you,” Jonah screamed, “I ran away because I knew you would forgive these scumbags.  Take my life, I can’t endure this.”  He simply couldn’t accept that the Assyrians had destroyed his homeland and killed so many innocent people without a thought, yet God would forgive them because they repented.

There is still more history behind this hatred. Israel had lapsed into worshiping idols again before the Assyrians overran their county.  The prophet Amos had warned the Israelites that unless they repented, God would not protect them and they would be taken captive.  Amos had a very personal way of explaining it to them: God can’t dwell with you any more than a man can maintain a true marriage with his wife who commits adultery.  Still, the Israelites reasoned, weren’t the Israelites God’s Chosen People?  Didn’t God love only them?  Didn’t God at least have to protect them because they had the Temple, the priesthood, the Ark?

So, after Ninevah prayed for mercy and did acts of penance – the King, all the people, even the cattle and the sheep wore sackcloth to express their grief – Jonah still sat and waited for God to come to his senses and destroy the city of Nineveh.  At first, God had a large plant grow up around Jonah to protect him from the sun.  The next day, as an object lesson, God had a worm destroy the plant, and Jonah became faint from the heat, and he told God he was so angry about the plant dying that he was angry enough to die.  God’s response is this: “You pity the plant, although you did nothing to grow it and only had it for one day. Then should I not pity a great city of 120,000 people, and their cattle, which didn’t know any better?”  One part of the lesson is: God’s mercy and love are not only for all people, but all of his creation.

.Jonah was so absorbed in his self-righteousness and pity, he was not longer rational. How did Jonah get so confused?  That is the other and primary point of this story.  Not quite 100 years after the Assyrian invasion of Israel, the Babylonians invaded, and leveled the country, again, taking most of the people captive, again, for some 40 years.  The people left behind were the poor and marginalized, who then intermarried with other tribes in the area.  These became the people called the “Samaritans.”  (Note: the Babylonians also leveled Nineveh.)

When the Israelites were released to return from captivity, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, a strong and narrow-minded Jewish nationalism developed. People were required to prove by lineage that they were “pure” Jews, and those with mixed lineage, like the Samaritans, were barred from participating in government or religious life.  Prior to this, a person could become an Israelite by marriage or coming to live and participate in the community.  But by the 4th Century BC, Israel had closed in on itself, no longer sharing their faith.  This story is a call for Israel to repent, and to preach and practice God’s mercy and forgiveness.  By putting a mirror up in front of the people, the writer hopes to show them the folly of their faults and bring them to repentance for their sins of exclusivity and hatred.

Jonah is a 4th Century BC teaching story with lots of implications for today’s world.  It is the story of love and gentleness as the one successful response to hatred.   It is a lesson of the faithfulness of God and how faithfulness is required from us to be able to walk with God in right relationship.  It is about when nationalism goes far beyond civic pride and falls into unwarranted presumption of privilege, particularly privilege which degrades others.

Every day is “the time of fulfillment, the Kingdom of God is at hand”, Jesus told us.  We also need to stop and repent of those sins we only recognize when we see them in others.   One of the reasons Jesus was surrounded by disciples was to give us people to relate to.  We can better hear Jesus’ teachings by identifying with the disciples mistakes.

And that means we all need to become increasingly aware of not only what we do but what we do not do.   I see pictures of refugee camps and starving children daily, yet I live very comfortably.  What I do not do speaks very loudly to me.  Do I think I am more valuable than a child dying of starvation and cholera in Yemen?  Does God find people in one nation innately more loveable than elsewhere?  Being God’s chosen people brings greater responsibility, not greater privilege.  Just a few blocks from us, around Coates Elementary School, live a lot of people who God chooses, too.  Perhaps they should be here, sitting next to us?

See. Go. Stay.

2nd Sunday Ordinary time. 1-14-18

1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19; Ps: 40:2, 4, 7-10; 1 Corinthians 6:13-20; John 1:35-42

We begin our readings in the middle of the story of Samuel. Who is Samuel, how does it matter; and why is he sleeping in the temple next to the Ark of God?  The answers are found by returning to the 1st chapter of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament.  Elkanah had two wives, Peninnah, and Hannah.  Peninnah was very proud that she had given Elkanah several children. She purposely teased and taunted Hannah and upset her by bragging about the children.  Hannah was unable to have a child, a cause of social disgrace in that culture. Children were a measure of a woman’s worth.

One day Hannah went into the temple to pray. She was weeping and moving her mouth in silent prayer.  The Priest, Eli, thought she was drunk and scolded her.  She told him that she was not drunk, but upset.  Then Eli blessed her and later she had a son, who she named Samuel. (Hannah’s desire for a child is very like the story of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.) Then Hannah prayed in thanksgiving, saying, “My heart exults in the Lord….I rejoice in thy salvation.  Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.  The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.”  (It is a prayer that is very much like Mary’s Magnificat.)

When he was old enough, Hannah brought Samuel to the temple to stay with Eli, so that Samuel could learn the ways of God and grow up in God’s presence. The Jews of that time believed that the Spirit of God lived in the temple, and filled the Ark of the Covenant.  What better place for the boy to sleep than next to the Ark?

Eli’s sons, who were to succeed him as Priest, were disobedient to God and their father. But we are told that “the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with men.”  (Luke’s Gospel tells us that after the boy Jesus talked with the teachers in the temple, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.”)

When Eli finally understood that God was speaking to Samuel, he taught him to say, “Speak for your servant is listening.”   Those words are carried into our Psalm.   In Psalm 40 we read, “Sacrifice or offerings you wish not, but ears open to obedience you gave me….so I said, “Here I am; your commands for me are written in the scroll.  To do your will is my delight.”  And the Letter to the Hebrews quotes Jesus as reciting this Psalm this way, “I have come to do your will, O God.” John’s Gospel has repeated instances when Jesus listened to God.

So Samuel’s story has elements that are very familiar. The Gospels draw on the stories from Jewish history to give us the message that Jesus was indeed “The One Who was to Come”.  The people who first read these Gospels knew by this that Jesus was the Messiah.

So the 1st reading and the psalm prepare us for the Gospel.  It is like the difference between saying to a child, “Here’s your milk”, and taking a child to a dairy farm, where they can see and touch a cow, hear it moo, and watch as the milk comes from the cow into the tubes to the tanks where it is pasteurized and perhaps chocolate added.  That brings about understanding for the child.  We need an understanding of some of the many ways the Jewish scriptures are not separate, but very connected to the New Testament.  We see patterns that are not yet complete, and we have a sense of anticipation about the message of Jesus, the Messiah.

John the Baptist heard the message, and he foretold the coming of the Messiah. He did the will of God when he baptized Jesus and proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”  The next day, where our reading picks up, he said it again.  It initiates a chain reaction which changed the course of history.  Two of John’s disciples heard him, Andrew and John (we think), and they immediately followed Jesus.   It must have been a scene permanently engraved in John’s memory, because he even records the time of day.  The implication is that staying that long with Jesus is a sign that the men were dedicated to remain with Jesus.  From there, the excitement spread to Peter and beyond.

This is different from the calling of the disciples in the Gospel of Luke. Remember, John is not writing to preserve a step-by-step historical record of the events as our culture might expect.  John is instead writing to explain who Jesus was, to reveal the character and motive of Jesus’ ministry and purpose.  Still, John’s rendering of his joining Jesus at this time is supported by Peter’s remark in Acts 2:21-22.  Peter wants to fill Judas’ place with someone “who accompanied us beginning from the baptism of John.”

The verb “follow” and the directive “follow me” appear 4 times in 6 verses, and many other times in the Gospels, don’t mean to just to walk along with. It is a much deeper connection.  Notice that Jesus initiates the conversation.  Jesus has come to earth to save the lost.  Jesus does not hesitate to get to the heart of the issue; he asks, “What are you looking for?”  These men would not have been disciples of John the Baptist if they had not been seeking a fuller life with God – something deeper than just living and then dying.  “Where are you staying?” is a desire to know Jesus fully. His response, “Come, and you will see” conveys that he is open to their questions and offering a challenge to their faith.

This scene introduces us to many of John’s key words. “Coming” to Jesus is to have faith; “seeing” Jesus is to understand his message. As Fr. Raymond Brown, one of the primary authorities on John, puts it, “If the training of the disciples begins when they go to Jesus to see where he is staying and stay on (abide) with him, it will be completed when they see his glory and believe in him.” All this adds to our understanding of the scriptures.

But what do we do with it on Monday?  Fr. John Pilch writes that this gives us a highly successful pattern for telling others about Jesus: (1) A believer in Jesus (John the Baptist) tells someone (his disciples) about Jesus and (2) he uses a special title of Jesus (“Lamb of God”). (3) The believer shows that person Jesus (in acts or words). (4) Jesus then calls the newcomer and brings them to faith.

We, then, are to live honest and true lives for all to see. When people ask us why we act this way, we can share our faith. When people around us get discouraged or mired in bad choices and we respond with compassion, or when we are generous to those in need, we give people who watch us reason to believe what we say. When we are in conversation, opportunities arise to explain why we go to church and believe in God. We can speak of our faith with confidence and pride, and answer questions about our beliefs. The Holy Spirit will intervene with a gift of understanding and love.   This has always been the primary way of sharing faith, person to person, and will likely remain the primary way for Christianity to thrive and flourish. Someone tells us, we go to Jesus, see where he is, and stay with him to see his glory.

Building Houses & Keeping Promises

4th Sunday Advent 12-24-17

2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Ps: 89:2-3, 4-5, 27-29; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

 

I raised my children in a small town in upstate New York.  The town promotes itself as “historic”, meaning that history is about all that’s left – no industry, and only a few stores.  When my middle son finished high school, a job as a janitor at the elementary school opened, and he saw that as his only chance for a steady job with benefits.  But God had not made this young man to be a janitor.  Not that I have anything but respect and admiration for school janitors, but it wasn’t the right job for him.  And that Christmas, my cousin gave him a miracle in the form of a Radio Shack TSR-80 home computer.  My son was re-born as a highly respected “IT guy”.

Our first reading today is about King David. One day, King David had a chance to take a breath from the large military campaigns which had made Israel safe from hostile neighbors.  David realized he was living in a “cedar palace” while the Ark of the Covenant and the place where the nation worshiped God was still in a tent, just as it had been since his ancestors fled Egypt.  He began to make plans to build a house for God.  But God had not meant David to be a house builder.  Not that God has anything but respect and admiration for builders, but that wasn’t the right job for David.

So God would take care of the building, by having one of David’s sons- Solomon- build a magnificent Temple.  God had another role for David.  It would be another sort of “house”.  My own father still used the term “house” to describe his lineage, his ancestors. God’s gift to King David was to be the beginning of long line of Kings, what we might call a “dynasty”, a traceable line of names and history, leading to the long-awaited Messiah, the savior of God’s people.  Matthew’s Gospel spells out those 28 generations from David to Jesus to make the point clear.

The other problem with David building a “house” or temple for God was that David had missed an important lesson about his relationship with God. David was thinking like a King who built loyalty with his staff and soldiers was by rewarding them with power and prestige.  God had no use for David’s rewards.  God reminds David that when the prophet Samuel anointed David as King, David was a young man who spent his days guarding sheep.  God had made David a King who guarded God’s people.  God was the reason for David’s military success.  God was the reason that Israel was enjoying peace.   God had been with David in every circumstance, in every location, in the fields and in the palace.  God is greater than any building; God is not defined by space or décor, by canvas or cedar.  Buildings weather and decay, but God’s blessings are eternal.

The Psalms, many of which were traditionally attributed to David, stress one of the other themes which build during Advent: the promises of God, specifically the fulfillment of God’s promises. Thru the centuries, those promises remain alive and, in God’s time, they are fulfilled and renewed.  Today’s Psalm says, “I will sing forever of the promises of the Lord…my mouth will proclaim (God’s) faithfulness.” (God) had made a covenant with…(David)..(God) will …establish David’s throne for all generations.”  The House of David remains with us today as Jesus our Lord and Savior.

The 2nd reading, from the Letter to the Church at Rome, frames this idea differently.   King David most likely thought of God’s promise of his dynasty, his lineage, in terms of an earthly throne.  The full implications were not known to him.  The Gospel of Jesus that Paul had been preaching is referred to here as a “mystery.” Saint Paul lived in a time when people were just beginning to sort out the message and full implications of the birth of Jesus, his life and teaching, his crucifixion and resurrection.  Believers were starting to made sense of how those promises had been fulfilled.  The mystery of God’s promises continues to open to each new generation and each new believer as they consider their own lives and their own relationship to God. We find that we are part of the promise – we live in a particular part of the revelation of the mystery. We have been woven into the very fiber of the building of the Kingdom.

The angel Gabriel brought to Mary a mystery that at first was troubling, even the cause of fear. It was a mystery that the child could be divine, yet born as a human child.  The child she would conceive by the power of God and the Holy Spirit will be given the “throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary’s child fulfilled the promise to King David.

Neither King David, nor St. Paul, nor Mary expected God to fulfill the promise in the way that it actually happened.  They each had their own expectations.  Yet each of them willingly moved forward in faith and trust. They struggled against fear and opposition, against seemingly unconquerable difficulties and, yes, danger…in the full knowledge that God was with them and that God’s plan, however mysterious or obscure, was best.  They were able to do that because they knew God kept his promises.

Christmas is a time of miracles and joy. Now we will once again experience the thrill of the gift of this ancient promise.  Even 2000+ years after the historical event, even before we fully grasp the how and where and why, we feel the thrill of something that changes our lives in that tiny child.  King David and St. Paul and the Blessed Virgin Mary all chose to open their hearts, and their lives, to the mystery – to be personally part of a great miracle of love for every human being who has lived or will live.  As we move from Advent to Christmas, we enter a time when past, present and future come together.