Today’s gospel is kind of remarkable in that it gives us a look at something that has plagued humanity for a long time. The Mediterranean world was a tribal world and in many ways closed itself off from outsiders. As a result, in this passage, we see Jesus reacts to the woman, an outsider, in an almost harsh way. He says his mission is to Israelites and basically calls her a dog. Yet ultimately, Jesus sees and understands that the woman’s faith and perseverance makes her a follower and he grants her request. This Gospel I think has a lesson for our present time. For the past couple centuries, our nation has been a place of settlement and refuge for people from different parts of the world. Whether voluntarily or involuntarily our population has grown and people have been able to live in relative peace. Science has made popular the tracing of ancestry through a person’s DNA. In my own case, I was surprised to find that I was 2-3% Asian. My point is that the human race is really one and that no matter where our ancestors started out, here we are.
Christ came and as God created the whole world and all and everything in it, so Christ was born and lived and died and rose for every human ever created. His love has and does embrace everyone. Through the centuries, both before Christ’s time and after it there has been evil and bad things present in the world. The freedom which was imparted into humanity to make their own choices, has at many times been a trial and tribulation for humanity. Choosing not to love as God has ask is to deny him and be in sin. Even then, through the graces of Christ, his love shows mercy and forgiveness when sought out. Never has Christ’s love and message needed more to be preached and shown to the world than when humanity’s choices seem unfortunate and wrong. Christ’s love is with us still and always, we must be strong and show and share that same love.
19th Sunday Ordinary time, 8-13-17; 1 Kings 19:9a-13a; Ps 85; Rom 9:1-5; Matt 14:22-33.
As I read these scriptures this week, a single word stood out: “Anguish.” This week is a counterpoint to last week’s glorious Transfiguration. Paul uses the word “Anguish” in our reading from his Letter to the Romans. As you probably know, Paul was a Jewish Pharisee before he converted to “The Way” of Jesus and became an evangelist of the Good News. Paul is thinking about “the great sorrow and constant anguish” in his heart for the Jews, his people. Their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Savior was tragic. It was the Jews who had watchfully awaited the Messiah, who had passed the expectation from generation to generation. It was the Jews who had been given the law and commandments; the Jews who had made the covenant with God, and it was from the line of David that Jesus was born. While Paul offers praise to God for this marvelous gift of the Messiah, he does it with a heavy heart.
Elijah’s heart was more anguished than Paul’s. Elijah had the kind of stress that can kill people. When Ahab had become King of Israel, “he did more to anger God than any of the other kings of Israel before him” (1Kings 16:33). He worshiped idols and he built altars to them. His wife, Jezebel, focused killing all the prophets of God, particularly Elijah. Finally, Elijah went to King Ahab and demanded a showdown. It was Elijah for God vs. 450 prophets for the idols. Each side built an altar and called for fire to come down and consume a sacrifice. The prophets of the idols called out, danced, and cut themselves with knifes for hours to no effect. Elijah flooded his altar with water, said a short prayer, and fire came down and consumed the sacrifice, the water, the wood, even the stones. Then he ran.
For a full day, Elijah fled from Jezebel’s wrath, until he collapsed in fear, exhaustion, and anguish over the entire situation. He prayed for death to take him. Instead, an angel provided food for him until he was able to continue to the mountains. God asked him why he was in hiding. Elijah responded, “I have given everything I had, and more, for you, God. But the people have turned away from you, your places of worship have been destroyed, and all your prophets are dead. I am alone and there is nothing else I can do.” That is the voice of anguish. God arrives with a “tiny whispering sound”, the gentleness we need when we are in such emotional pain. God protects Elijah, has him anoint a new king and a new prophet, and then brings Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind on a flaming chariot.
Even our Psalm today is a lament. The people are in anguish, feeling abandoned by God and afraid God will be angry with them forever. They want God’s love and glory to return. They imagine kindness and truth meeting. When someone asks if their new clothes make them look fat, we find that kindness and truth do not always meet. Truth does not always spring from us on earth, and we would often prefer mercy rather than justice from heaven. Being holy people is difficult.
So, we move to the Gospel, and things aren’t going very well there, either. Jesus has just heard the news that his dear cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod as part of an obscene power-play at an outlandish party! It was just too revolting and horrendous, and Jesus withdrew to a quiet place by himself in grief. But people continued to seek him out, and a crowd of some 5,000 people gathered, begging for healing and needing food. Setting aside his own anguish over John, he attended to their needs. Afterward, still needing time to himself, he sends the disciples ahead in the boat, and Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.
Jesus walking on water is one of the beloved stories of the faith, and I’m sure you know it. A heavy storm broke over the lake. Jesus, knowing, that the disciples’ faith was still as little as a new-born baby, goes to them. They are so panicked, so anguished, that they react even to Jesus with fear and doubt. There it is again, “Do not be afraid.” If I ever get a tattoo, that’s what it should be. As Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat, the disciples worship him as The Divine One he is.
What did we learn?
1. We all have to rely on God, especially when it seems that evil or tragedy has the upper hand. Elijah shows us that trust is not just a sheer act of the will, not simply a blind decision, but a quiet emergence of God’s faithful love. Faith works best when we don’t confuse it with our own powers or efforts.
2. Like Paul, every Christian experiences anguish because our failures and our experiences can seem so hard to reconcile with the promises of God. Yet those promises are eternal. Our faith has its ups and downs and it is often very difficult to see our life in the big picture.
3. “Lord, let us see your kindness”, our Psalmist said. Let us see God’s kindness in all the people who follow God, carrying their crosses of daily sacrifice and suffering.
4. Knowing that Jesus experienced loss and grief, we know he will not abandon us. We too can be healed by time spent with God in prayer and meditation. After getting back into the boat, Peter would have told us that sometimes Jesus will calm the storm, and sometimes Jesus will calm you in the storm. But we are never beyond God’s reach and never have too little faith to call out to him, for God is with us.
16th Sunday, 7-23-17
Wis 12:13, 16-19; Ps: 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Romans 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-44
It couldn’t wait any longer. My hair had grown out, and was on the verge of going completely wild. It was time to go see my favorite stylist. She’s in her thirties, rather conservative in her dress and behavior. We don’t discuss religion or politics. Somehow though, she slipped single sentence into our carefully benign conversation about her brother who was a heroin addict, and now in prison. “We won’t go into that”, she said softly.
But suddenly, with great need to tell the story, she was sharing with me the details of her brother’s descent into darkness. Nice guy with the usual amount of youthful immortality and desire for a social group. He was a highly trained and skillful pastry chef. Tried drugs along with most the other people he worked with. Arrest. Rehab. Overdose…. 2nd Arrest…retraining to be away from the drug infestation in the food industry. One semester away from a Master’s Degree. Slipped. Needed money, sold drugs, used drugs, arrested and convicted for his third felony drug charge. Now he must attend classes every day for 18 months in prison. Then be in impatient rehab for 3 years. Then half-way house for 2 more years and find employment. Then parole, never allowed a single bad drug test or one missed appointment. Failure means a 25 year prison sentence – losing most of his adult life.
If Jesus was here today, he might tell this sad story instead of using an agricultural example of wheat and weeds. Weeds, Jesus said, were planted by the evil one. Illegal drugs are, no pun intended, one of the weeds of our time. When evil entered our world, the problem was not just with one woman and one man and one tree with apples on it. The problem was that people began to disobey, to choose badly, to do what was wrong while still knowing and wanting what was right. Drugs, those fiercely invasive and destructive weeds, make the apple incident look like forgetting to pay the electric bill on time and facing a small late charge.
Oddly enough, self monitoring has never worked well. We ignore or excuse our own bad behavior and loudly proclaim and condemn the wrong others do. We spend billions on weapons and guns and rockets and ammunition to kill and destroy, and yet manage to find reasons, which I don’t quite get, why God should bless us for this. Politicians and press of all stripes work to convince us who is an enemy and who is our friend. Most of us, in return, say we have too little time to verify their statements and moan about our “helplessness” in changing things.
Maybe you have had the same experiences as I have. I watch the evening news or read a newspaper or an on-line news article and wonder. I wish I could stop this insanity. I wish I could stop Christianity from being an excuse or even a silent bystander to this evil. I wish I could make my own little life clean and pure or even brave enough to make changes in my own little garden of weeds growing in my heart. I would get right in there with a hoe, I would yank those weeds out so fast, that garden would be clean and I would plant good seed to feed the needy! But that is not reality. That is a fantasy that leads right back to where we started, for evil is still here, with weeds and drugs and lots of other bad things that look pretty desirable sometimes.
What does this parable suggest we do? Well, Jesus, like the wise man who sowed the wheat, seems amazingly patient with us weedy-garden-hearted people. Don’t tear out the weeds, for if you do, you will damage the crop that you rely on for food. Be gentle as possible with those who are struggling with evil. Start with yourself and forgive yourself for the times a little meanness comes out of your mouth, or a little greed seizes your check book. Then move onto the addicts. It takes money, it takes –dare I say it- health insurance to get help with addictions, it takes lots of dedicated practitioners, of which we have far too few. It takes employers with zero tolerance for drugs in the work place but willingness to employ those who are rebuilding their lives. It takes treatment facilities, maybe in our own neighborhoods. In short it takes a commitment to focus on re-building a gentler world, and we need to love and forgive our selves and our churches and our society for pretending the causes of addiction can be fixed by just saying “no”.
Where to start? By proclaiming the love and faithfulness of God, the forgiveness of God? There is enormous power in the Gospel and the Christian story. By the courage to realize our own wheat crops aren’t in very good shape, either? By acknowledging that there is no us (holy) and them (evil)? By admitting that judgmental assumptions are bad behavior? If I read this Gospel correctly, the harvesters are God’s angels, and they will sort the good and the bad correctly. Good news: we can take judging people off our to-do list! Yes!
I learned a hard lesson once, many years ago. I had a minor car accident, and was unable to get my car back on the road. I had been ill, and I was coming back from a doctor’s appointment. I was stuck and had no resources to help myself. Who helped me? A young immigrant man who spoke no English, who had no job, who I had seen loitering around a business of bad reputation- he helped me. I would not have spoken to him in other circumstances. For all I know, he was an angle, sent by God to open my eyes. It made me think of Jesus, close to death on the cross, offering eternal life to the men on either side of him, who admitted to “deserving” their terrible death. And I knew then that I too am capable of the bitingly sarcastic response of the one who jeered Jesus.
So, what’s the take-away? First, I am so very proud of everyone who has been part of the effort to supply food for the children at our local Elementary School. I get tingles down my spine when I think of the extra effort the fine people of Holy Trinity made to supply treats for the end-of-school-celebration there in June. I smile when I remember the gift cards you purchased to reward the children. Well Done. Those kids may live in weedy circumstances, and you offered them love without judgment.
Last, there are those who will never choose God, it would seem. I might be wrong about that. I suspect I’m pretty blind to my own weedy-ness at times. But I think that most people would like to live good lives. I’m sure the power of Love is always and drastically underrated. I am absolutely positive that God is always ready to forgive us for being weedy, either a little or a lot, and that Love, not Round-up herbicide, is the way of God.
15th Sunday Ord Time, 7-16-17 Isaiah 55: 10-11, Ps 65, 10-14, Romans8:18-23, Matt13: 1-23
I first read today’s scriptures sitting at my desk, which overlooks a beautiful green open space, with trees and wild flowers, and chirping birds. It felt like heaven was close by.
Our 1st reading is from the 55th chapter of Isaiah. I find these readings to have much more meaning if I read the whole chapter. You might label this chapter “an invitation to grace”. God starts by offering water to the thirsty. Then God offers food to the hungry, those with no money to buy food, those facing starvation. Plentiful, rich food is offered, food which satisfies. Next God says, “Come to me, that you may have life.” The symbolism has faded away and we have arrived at the heart of the message. Come to God for the food of mercy, for God is always ready to forgive. Isaiah says, “Like the heavens are far above the earth, so are God’s ways above our ways.”
We understand about rain freely coming down from the sky to water the earth; mercy rains on us in the same way. Anyone who has seen a drought understands the life-giving impact of rain, changing dried clumps of earth into a growing field and producing the crops that give food. In the creation story, God’s Word was the source of earth and sky and sea. Now God’s Word comes to us, comes to us like rain and gives us life. God’s wisdom grows in our hearts.
Our Psalm is a very similar message; it begins with praise and thanksgiving for God’s mercy. We are overcome by our human failures; it is God who pardons them. It is God who set the mountains in place. God sends the rain, makes the crops grow; God fills the meadows with flowers. We can do none of those things.
Many of us now are so removed from agriculture and food production that we can easily forget about all this. In our Gospel, Jesus taught people who lived fully at the mercy of the rain and the fields and the flocks. But like us, somehow they managed to hear but not listen and look but not see. They too refused to change, to listen to God’s Word, or to be healed with God’s wisdom.
Jesus described some people as the dry, hard packed dirt of a busy road, where the seed of God’s Word fell. The seed could not break thru to put down roots and grow, and the birds came and ate the seeds.
Other people were described as thin soil on rocky ground, where the seed sprouted but had too little nourishment to flourish. Such people have nothing to ground their lives; they pay any attention only to the crisis of the day. Still other people are described as thorny ground; they are worried about things they cannot control, and put all their efforts into gaining wealth and power, crowding out the seeds of virtue and wisdom. But those who treasure God’s Word, they are like good soil, will grow a large crop of blessings and have a full harvest of eternal life. It’s a beautiful parable of possibility and choice.
St. Paul takes a different approach to the images of creation. His goal is to instill hope in us. He acknowledges that suffering is part of this life. He speaks to those who are disheartened and discouraged. He tells us that the worst suffering is a small price to pay for the glory of eternal life. He understands failure, and shares our frustration with our inability to be the strong and faithful people we want to be.
Creation was put under human control by God, and therefore it fell from glory along with Adam & Eve when evil entered the world. Paul uses expressions like “subjected to futility, and “slavery to decay” to describe creation now. But the entire creation, Paul wrote, has been groaning as if in the labor pains of “childbirth”. We have the Holy Spirit as a “down payment” on our redemption, so we, along with creation, also groan as we wait for our final adoption as children of God. The Spirit, too, Paul adds two verses later, “intercedes (for us) with inexpressible groanings.” Paul makes our universe sound like a giant Labor & Delivery Unit! Suffering, he says, is not a threat to our salvation, but a sign that “birth” is close at hand. Our second birth, our “delivery” as believers comes in the form of resurrection.
This is a reminder that we live in a time of “already”, since Christ has already come. At the same time, we live in the time of “not yet” as we still await the return of Christ. In 2nd Peter, we find this: “With the Lord 1 day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like 1 day. The Lord does not delay, but he is patient, not wishing that any should perish.”
So we found four lessons in creation; what do we do with them?
1. God rains down mercy and grace on us all. With these two gifts, God will create new and eternal lives for us. Since mercy is forgiveness, we must make amends then move on. Grace is generosity and love for all, creating new paths after failure. We accept grace and mercy; we offer grace and mercy to each other.
- God created a beautiful and fruitful world for us. God does what we can’t, and we should praise God for his goodness and the abundance he gives us. So, let’s take time to marvel in God’s power and the mysteries of nature. Take time to be thankful.
- We can be blind and deaf to God’s goodness. We must choose if we will receive that abundant goodness. The Word of God has immeasurable power in our lives, transforming power, available to all who nurture that Word which God sows freely. Bible study (reading God’s word), prayer (talking with God) and meditation (listening to God) change us.
- Hope and comfort is found in all that God created. Suffering and a sense of futility will pass. The Spirit is with us, and we will soon enough know the glorious freedom of being children of God. So, focus on what is right and good. Spend your time on things that are positive, generous and loving. Seek out God.
It occurred to me that if each day, we took time to focus on these 4 lessons, our lives would become more righteous. That isn’t just something that Saints do, but something that we all can do. It simply means that we develop a right and good relationship with God. We become more closely aligned with God and our lives look and feel like we reflect God’s ways. Let me challenge you with this: try for the next week to take a few moments at the beginning and end of each day to review these 4 lessons, and really act them out. See what happens.
My yoke is easy and my burden light. The Priests and Scribes and Pharisees and Elders of Jesus time represented the wisdom of time and the law of the land. It was to these leaders of the temple that the people looked to be faithful followers of God in the tradition of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and king David. These men over the years had codified laws and rules and prescriptions that were specific and numerous and were controlling of every part of life. These rules and laws went from the washing of hands before eating to worshiping. Lost in all this was the personal nature of God. Jesus today is telling them that the revelation of his Father is hidden from the wise because they are blinded to Jesus. It is through Jesus that they can see and experience the Father. In this way they come to know the father because they know Jesus and only he can reveal and bring the father to them. So, Jesus is revealing to them the true wisdom, and that is his person. He is the way to the father and he is telling those so strongly bound and burdened with so many prescriptions to come to him and rest and give up their burdens. His yoke, his burden is easy in comparison. His call is love and concern for others to live in the person of Christ.
Today, we should remember Christ’s words and remember that wisdom is in his person and actions. Rules and laws are meant to be a service or guideline for order, yet without compassion and mercy and living in the person of Christ are they meeting the test “My yoke is easy and my burden light”? Truly our real rest and peace is in him.