Homily January 7, 2018 Feast of the Epiphany

ep3Today’s feast of the magi is only found in Matthew. It is a tradition coming from the east and is a manifestation or appearance of Christ followed by his appearance with John the Baptist. The readings and the feast are a contrast if innocence and evil of darkness and light. This feast was joined with the season of Christmas when that feast came about. First we see the magi following the light or the star looking for the new king to be born. Once they met Herod, they found a man who in his actions and relating to strangers ep4would seem suspicious in his trying to be overly secretive in finding the king the magi sought. His jealousy and evilness show through his actions and certainly made there dream to go home a different way much easier. Plus, we should add that the meeting of the child must have been an experience rewarding the journey they made and the innocence of their pursuit.

Today, our world has changed in many ways, but some have remained the same or gotten worse. Innocence and evil still coexist, or the darkness of evil still works at extinguishing the light of good things. Christ came to bring his kingdom and light to the world, but it is still up ep2to us to avoid the darkness. Certainly none of us is perfect, but we can work at looking out for each other. We can do this by being conscious that darkness lurks around us always. On the other hand, let us not forget the loving community and family and friends around us. Let us always remember, that when we see something wrong, that like the magi, we can chose to take a different way.

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What does Salvation mean, anyway ?

Holy Family, 12-31-17

Genesis 15: 1-6; 21: 1-3; Psalm 105: 1-9, Hebrews 11: 8, 11,12,17-19; Luke 2: 22-40

We read today from the 2nd chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Luke makes Jesus the focal point to explain the loving and generous ways of God. Luke frequently uses the title “Lord” for Jesus. “Lord” is the same name used for God in the Greek Old Testament. Jesus, Luke tells us, is God come to earth. Jesus came to all people. Luke takes great effort to relate how Jesus brought salvation to the poor, women, children, “sinners”, and outcasts (like the Samaritans).

In fact, two of Luke’s favorite expressions are “preach the gospel” and “salvation.” “Preaching the Gospel” includes the entire ministry of Jesus- his teaching, healing, and compassion were all part of the good news that God has come to His people. “Salvation” is defined in Luke 19:10 this way: “The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Too often Christians use this word but aren’t so sure what it means. The words salvation and “Savior” both come from the same Latin word (salvare), which means to save. The basic idea of being saved or salvation is that God will “find and free” us from any kind of evil, just as God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. God frees us to fully participate in all the goodness of life and in all the blessings of God. It makes sense then that God wishes to save us from sin as well as the evils that are the consequences of sin. Jesus acts as the “middle man” or mediator who suffers and dies to bring us this salvation both now and in eternal life.

So, with that long introduction, we begin with the Jewish ritual purification of Mary, when a sacrifice of turtledoves or pigeons was offered 40 days after the birth of a child, as required by the Law of Moses in Leviticus 12. The mother is welcomed back into the community after the birth.

A second ritual was also completed, that being the “redeeming” of a first born child. All first born children – and animals, for that matter – were presumed to belong to God. Children were “bought back” with a small offering of money. You can find that Law in Exodus 13:13. God-fearing parents of every century feel the need to thank God for the miracle of a child. It’s a tradition that makes great sense. The parents publically proclaim the child is theirs, as a gift from God, and they will support, nurture, teach, and raise the child in the faith. These traditions introduce the infant to the worship of God in the community of believers, not unlike Christian infant baptism.

This scene with the infant Jesus also underlines the larger idea of redemption. For Christians, redemption is closely tied to salvation. Marie Monville wrote this: “To redeem means to exchange one thing for another, to buy back, to recover the value of something by exchanging it for another. God replaces…weakness with his strength, the ugliness of sin with the beauty of forgiveness, the blackest darkness with his brilliant light.”  It is sort of like redeeming something in a pawn shop!  In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, St. Paul wrote, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price”. That is the Catholic view of the crucifixion – that the price Jesus paid for us to be redeemed and freed from sin was his own life.

Two significant messages are then delivered by Simeon and Anna. Simeon, a “righteous and devout man” was looking for the “consolation of Israel” – meaning the salvation which the Messiah was to bring. Messiah is an Aramaic word meaning “liberator”, which means the same as “Savior”. Simeon had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would see the Messiah, and now he proclaims that he has seen the Messiah who will bring salvation to all people, not only the Jews. Simeon says, “…my eyes have seen your salvation…a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” God has kept his promise to Simeon, to the prophets (Isaiah 49:6), and to King David.

Simeon offers a blessing of thanksgiving to God and a blessing of prophecy to Mary and Joseph. Out of Simeon’s mouth comes a very precise statement of the miracle of Jesus: the child brings peace and the promise of a Messiah has been fulfilled. In addition, Jesus is the entrance of God into the world for all people; he is a revelation and light (new understanding). Jesus will bring salvation and judgment; he will bring lasting changes to the world, and the changes will result in a strong push-back from the darkness in the world.

One of the unique traits of Luke’s Gospel is that he often introduces a strong man counterbalanced by a woman. Luke names this woman, which is highly unusual in writings of the day; we actually have more information about Anna than Simeon. We know her age, her father’s name and her tribe. Luke tells us that Anna, like Simeon, was very devout, “She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” She too said a prayer of thanksgiving for the child Jesus and, like the shepherds, immediately “spoke of (Jesus) to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Anna’s waiting is over, her patience has been rewarded, and then she participates in the preaching of the Gospel.

As always, God chooses us (all) and provides what we need to be in a personal relationship with our Creator. We are offered freedom from slavery to sin and darkness, the price has been paid, and we must act on our choice. That is one reason we have all those Bible characters who are flawed and foolish; we read about them stumble and fall, then ask for forgiveness and return to right relationship (what Christians call righteousness) with God. And people who experience this freedom want to share it with others. Amazing – all this from just a portion of the 2nd chapter of Luke!

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.

Questions for a New Year

1st Sunday Advent, year B 12-3-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homily December 3, 2017, the First Sunday of Advent

advent 1Today we start the new Liturgical Year, but we start it by going to the end part of Mark’s gospel to the prophecies of persecution and the times of tribulation and the destruction of the Temple. One thing standing out is the word in our liturgy today is the word and idea of “waiting.” Waiting for the Master who has gone away and will return at any time in the near or far future. Waiting for him to come at any time, any hour and to be advent2prepared to open and let him in.

The first reading from Isaiah is from a time Israel had returned home to devastation and the ruins of their Temple. Very definitely there were gaps in their trust and faithfulness to God , gaps that they had to fill in to once again become his faithful people. The situation and state of the world seemed so hopeless for them, that giving trust and hope was difficult. God, however, responded to them giving them aadvent3 “YET” in the promise of a coming of a savior. The when and where was unknown, but the “YET” was his only son Jesus who came to the world and to the Jewish people during a later time of occupation and subservience to Rome. The gospel today is from Jesus’ last days and after his account of the coming persecution and destruction of Jerusalem. It follows that as he tells them of the Master leaving and returning at an undetermined time. Ironically or unfortunately, almost every century has experienced the signs persecution and disorder and being cut advent4off from God. Christianity has never been perfect, as mankind has never managed to fully and completely to be faithful. Our saving grace is that same “YET” we are reminded will come again to all who await God’s call. His call to wait, to be awake, to weather the times and persecutions to greet him when he comes, is still there. The season of Advent is here to remind us to watch and wait as we celebrate once again Christ’s coming as an infant in Bethlehem.

The Good Gift

Christmas Eve, 12-24-16 Isaiah 9:1-6; Ps 96: 1-3, 11-13; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2:1-14

Our scriptures tonight articulate the idea of Christmas better than I can.  Isaiah starts it off with a review of what we read in Advent. He highlights love and hope and peace and joy, just as we have done for 4 weeks now. Then he makes the jump: “For a child is born to us, a son is given, Wonder-counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” Then the Psalm echoes back, “For the Lord comes to rule the earth, let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice.” Not to be outdone, our 2nd reading joins in with “The grace of God has appeared, saving all, as we await the blessed hope, Jesus Christ, to cleanse a people as his own, eager to do what is good. In the Gospel, the angels have the last word, as they should, “Glory to God in the highest.”

The Christmas Story does not begin in the Gospels of the New Testament. The Christmas Story starts in Genesis. God creates a good earth. After each “Day” of creation, God declares creation “good”. Then suddenly in the Garden of Eden, the serpent appears with evil lies and temptation. Why did that happen?

I have never had much success with questions starting with “why”. The problem began way back when I asked, “Why is the sky blue?” My mother said, “The sky is blue to match your blue eyes.” But as an adult, I still ask “Why did the Holy Child, the Messiah, the Son of God, come to earth to be with the likes us?” Answer: To rescue us from the evil problem; to see that we come safely back home to a place of no death and no evil. My mother was right; it’s good to keep it simple. The baby came to pick us up, clean us off, and take us home where things are “good”.   It was just too big a job for us to do alone.

So, in the next week, there will come a time when the house is quiet, the discarded gift wrap is in the recycle bin, and the dishes from the figgy pudding are in the dishwasher. Sit with this story of the Coming of the Christ Child from the 2nd chapter of Luke, and read it again.  Read it for the images.  Let the words lull you into a pleasant meditation.

Consider all the rich phrases. Consider what “being of the house and lineage of David” means, and the implication of” no room in the inn”. Consider the lowly shepherds, getting the news directly from angels and being personally invited to visit the newborn.  What would make the angels say this is “good news of great joy for all people”?   Savor all these images in a symbolic sense, and think how they might translate to this city and this culture.  The idea is not to dissect the words like a science project, but to delve deeply into them and wrap them about you like a blanket.  Stay with it long enough to bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye.

My favorite Christmas poem was written in the late 300’s. Please indulge me a minute as I read it to you.

Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending he – of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see, ever more and ever more.

O that birth forever blessed, when the Virgin, full of grace, by the spirit blest conceiving, bore the savior of our race – And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer, first revealed his sacred face, ever more and ever more.

Let the heights of heav’n adore him; angel hosts, his praises sing.  Powers, dominions, bow before him, and extol our God and king.  Let no tongue on earth be silent, every voice in concert ring, ever more and ever more.

Christ, to you with God the Father, Spirit blest eternally,                      Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving, and unending praises be:      Honor, glory, and dominion, and eternal victory,   ever more and ever more.

God Bless you, and Merry Christmas.