Where is God’s “House”?

The Holy Family, 12-30-18

1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28, Ps 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10, 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24, Luke 2:41-52

Our readings start with 1st Samuel, and the story of the prophet Samuel as a child. His mother had not been able to have a child, so she had gone to the Temple and prayed, telling God she would bring the child back to the Temple for a lifetime of service there. The Hebrew phrases it more like she had borrowed the child, and them returned him to God. In our terms, Samuel became an “adopted” child of God, a child who grew up in God’s “house”. It sets the stage for the Gospel nicely in terms of the importance of the Temple as a place representing God’s “Home” and presence among us, and the way we connect deeply with God for a lifetime.

Many people have translated today’s Psalm into modern English. Leslie Brandt starts it: “O God, the center of your will is truly the place of fulfillment. I long incessantly for the peace and security of walking with you. You are the only purpose and meaning for my life. Those who discover and follow you are forever blessed.”

Nan Merrill finishes the Psalm this way: “Blessed are they who put their strength in you, who choose to share the joy and sorrows of the world. They do not give way to fear or doubt; their lives are quickened by Divine Light and Power; they dwell within the peace of the Most High, They go from strength to strength and live with integrity.”

I know of no one who can live this way solely because of their own intellect or self-determination. Life is too complex to live without love, too full of stumbling blocks to be without God’s strength, too short to be without hope and faith.

Our second reading from 1st letter of St. John also used to prepare us for the Gospel. John writes that we are “children of God”. It does not mention the Temple. The Temple was probably destroyed by the Romans before this was written, but it was definitively written after Pentecost. John writes somewhat differently about what it is to live in God’s “house”.

He says: God’s commandment is that “(1) we should believe in… his Son, Jesus Christ, and (2) love one another as he commanded us.” So John concludes that “Those who keep (God’s) commandments remain in God, and the way we know that God remains in us, is from the (Holy) Spirit God gave us.” So, God’s dwelling is no longer understood as a building where we go to be with God. Instead, God is within us – which is a huge step when you think about it. But it makes sense, since we were created “in God’s image”, and God proclaimed us “good”, as Fr. Peter talked about last week.

If we are the dwelling place of God – “God’s House” – what is an appropriate and sensible way to run our lives? When God’s dwelling was a building, it was easy to understand there were certain ways to act and behave in God’s house. Ever since God had Moses create a Tent which housed the Ark of the Covenant, great care was taken to use the best of building materials, precious metals, and furniture and lamp stands of certain shapes. Desecrating the Temple was to show contempt or be irreverent. Being abusive, profane, sacrilegious, or disrespectful in the Temple was something that only mortal enemies did after every-able bodied person had given their lives to prevent it.

But my question was this: If God dwells in us, if we are God’s house, what are our responsibilities? John’s answer is straightforward: “to believe” and “to love.” We can trust God; there is no nanosecond of time when God does not love us; God never turns away from us. God is never out of town, or asleep or glued to a screen. Too many people have treated God like “Santa, Baby”- a demanding relationship where we stop believing in God if the blue convertible, the ring, the condo and the checks weren’t delivered by Christmas.

For the Gospel, we must return to the 3-level way of reading. Level 1 is the story line – most of us have heard this story before. Level 2 is the deeper meaning and symbolism. Level 3 is how to make use of it in our lives.

Finding deeper meaning may include asking: How did Mary and Joseph look for Jesus? They looked first among friends and family.  They looked to those who they knew well, they trusted, and who shared their faith and values.  That’s why we have God parents, and faith communities – because we need to be surrounded by people of faith.  But Jesus was not there.

They returned to the Temple, which they saw as the House of God, the center of faith and truth, where they went to be devout and faithful people of God, and observe the time-honored customs of worship.  They diligently conducted an intense search for a child they loved, and who was precious to them.  They would not leave until they found him, the child Jesus was all they thought about. They looked for their son in every corner of the Temple, not just in the open courts.  They even went to the special places where the teachers, the wise ones and the scholars met, those who devoted their lives to the study and practice of their faith, and they found him there, to their astonishment.

How do we use the passage we read to find Jesus in our own lives? In the first paragraph of Luke’s Gospel, he writes that he has closely studied the life of Jesus “from the beginning…from eyewitnesses and ministers of the word…so that (we) may know the truth…”  The Bible, then, is a good place to start the search for Jesus.

The community of faith often searches for Jesus together, sharing what their experiences have taught them. But that is not enough. Our search must be diligent and intense, including regular daily prayer and study time, which may mean re-working your daily schedule. We choose to be obedient to God and grow in wisdom.  Becoming an active participant in the worship of the faith community is important. This is the pattern of faithful Christian living that brings us to fullness of life. Continuing the search persistently is absolutely necessary.  It must continue until our last day.

So these readings are not just story lines from long ago, not just poems about a God that lives in a place far away. Rather, they point us toward a way of life – the Christian Life, a life of community of belief, and a pattern of love.  They are about the way we are to live going forward from the manger where the child was born, the God who created everything we know, who came to earth to live with us and live as one of us, and live within us.

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The Greatest Travelogue Ever!!

1st Sunday of Advent

Dec. 4, 2018, Beginning of liturical year C

This year I thought we would take a little different approach to Advent. From the 1st Sunday of Advent, today, thru the Christmas season, we will highlight each week specific characters or events in the Christmas story.  The goals are to make parts of the story come to life a little more, to better see the intent of the Gospel writers, and discover deeper meaning.

This week we start with the trip that Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  We start with a reminder that the Roman Empire occupied the Holy Lands at that time.  A call for a census could not be ignored.  This story begins in a time and place of bondage, of fear, and oppression.  It was a time that religion demanded that people make blood offerings to appease God.

Let us follow the journey of Mary and Joseph to see what it tells us. We start in the hill country of Nazareth, about ¾ the way up a map of Biblical Palestine.  They have two choices to get to Bethlehem.  The is to travel east and cross the Jordan River, then follow the heavily traveled caravan road south, cross back at Jericho, and climb the steep grade to Jerusalem, and go south to Bethlehem.  This was the longer of the 2 routes, and the busiest.  The 2nd route is an ancient road called the “Way of the Patriarchs”.  It is less traveled, shorter (20+miles), but you must pass through Samaria. It is about 95 miles, ten days on foot; for us, a drive of 2 ¼ hours.

You remember the prejudice against the Samaritans. They were considered “unclean” and even “dangerous”.  But you also remember the parable of the “Good Samaritan” and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, in Sychar.  It is interesting to consider that Jesus used a Samaritan to teach the command to love our neighbors; he may have first learned that love from Mary and Joseph.

But much of what is called the “West Bank” today was Samaria in the day of Jesus; the Palestinians there now are the “Samaritans” of our day.  Many tours have stopped going there because of the “danger.” We don’t know for fact that Mary and Joseph took this 2nd road, but Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor and author of “The Journey”, and noted archaeologist Avner Goren agree that this road makes sense.

As Mary and Joseph traveled south out of Nazareth, they traveled around beautiful Mount Tabor, mentioned in the Psalms, an ancient site of worship, and said to be the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Then they moved into the plain of the Jezreel Valley, which is now the most fertile farmland in Israel.  There were hundreds of olives trees there then, and trees still remain that are believed to be from that time.  Our anointing rites are based in the use of sacred oils, olive oils.

The Jezreel Valley was the site many ancient battles, including the battle between King Saul and the Philistines (think David and Goliath) , where evil Queen Jezebel killed a man to get his vineyards, Gideon defeated the Midianites, and prophesized to be the site of the final battle in the end times (Armageddon/ in Megiddo).

So Mary and Joseph have begun a trip of Biblical history covering a period of some 16 centuries. Abraham came from the north, from Haran, thru Shechem, Beth El, and down to Hebron.  The tombs of Abraham and Sarah are in Beer-sheva.  Jacob, their grandson, was given land in Samaria, and Jacob’s well is the Well in Sychar, where the “Woman” met Jesus. No doubt Mary and Joseph made camp near that well.   Jacob’s son Joseph was buried near Shechem also.  As they moved south, they went through Shiloh, where Joshua set up the tent of the Ark of the Covenant after entering the Promised Land.  This is where Samuel, Elijah and Elisha were prophets.

The Assyrian and Babylonian armies entered Israel on this road – and left on it taking the people as exiles and all the gold and silver from the Temple.  It is also how the exiles re-entered their homeland some 40 years later, to rebuild their nation.  It is amazing to think that God walked with those exiles as they returned, and now, almost 550 years later, Mary carries a child who is called the Prince of Peace over this same route.  It feels like a point of closure to thousands of years of history.

Luke begins his Gospel this way: “Inasmuch as many have… set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us… it seemed good to me also, having had a perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account,… that you might know the certainty of those things…” (Luke 1:1;3-4)  

There certainly are those who dismiss Luke’s account of Mary and Joseph’s journey as a fictional story. But we have historical sources concerning the Governor Quirinius, like the Roman historian, Tacitus (Annals 3.48) and the Jewish/Roman historian, Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 18.1-2). New Testament historian Jack Finegan says, “Many actual census returns have been found, and they use the very same word (ἀπογράφω) which Luke 2:2 uses for the “enrollment.” (From web site: Cross examined. Org.) So, on the factual level, it is entirely possible it did happen.

But all of the Gospels should be read on three levels – the simple reading of the event itself, the meaning intended by the author, and the application to our lives. The simple meaning (the storyline): In extraordinary love, how God came to earth as a fragile and vulnerable baby, in humility, meager circumstances, and with all the normal inconveniences of life.

What about the intent of Luke’s story?  Luke is certainly placing Jesus in the spotlight of salvation history. Jesus is the Messiah, the Promised One, and his entry into the world is straight down the main aisle of the Cathedral of what is the “Holy Land”, as if he is on the last, most awaited and most important float in the parade of all parades. All the main characters of the ancient faith line the side of the road, waiting for hundreds of years just to have a glimpse of him, to be able to say, “I was there that day.” Luke has taken the story from the very beginning, so that you might know, even before you read about the teaching, the miracles, the rising from the dead, that Jesus was the Son of God.

And there is where we come in. Have you ever sat down and read Luke? I mean all of it, the 24 chapters.   It would take you 3 weeks if you read a little each day. It is one of the most documented, literary, and polished Gospels. You have just about (coincidentally) that much time before Christmas. Stop! Picture the scenes! Think about the message! You will find the Holy Spirit there, waiting for you, waiting to stir your heart. Warning: it will make 1 hour on Sunday too little for you. It will make you want more. It will take your “comfortable ignorance” as one Catholic put it, and turn it into thirst and hunger. When that happens, I will tell you about the sequel to Luke’s story.

St. Martin of Tours and Us

November 11, 2018  32nd Sunday of Ordinary time

1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9: 24-28; Mark 12: 41-44

Saint Martin’s day, also known as the Feast of Saint Martin, or Martinmas, is the feast day of Saint Martin of Tours and is celebrated on November 11 each year.

Saint Martin was a Roman soldier as a young man.  The most famous legend concerning him was that he had once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save the beggar from the cold. That night, Martin dreamt of Jesus, who was wearing his half-cloak and saying to the angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is now baptized; he has clothed me.” So Martin was baptized as an adult and became a monk.

The goose became a symbol of St. Martin of Tours because of a legend that he tried to avoid being ordained bishop by hiding in a goose pen, where he was betrayed by the cackling of the geese. He would have preferred to be a hermit, but became the Bishop of Tours, France.

St. Martin was known as friend of children and patron of the poor. This holiday originated in France, and then spread to the Netherlands, the British Isles, Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe. St. Martin’s feast day comes at the time when autumn wheat seeding was completed, and the annual slaughter of fattened cattle as well as geese and pigs happened. It celebrated the end of the farming year and the harvest.

St. Martin’s Day was an important medieval autumn feast.  It became the custom of the wealthy to eat goose at the feast. In the peasant community, not everyone could afford to eat goose, so many ate duck or chicken instead. (An old English saying is “His Martinmas will come as it does to every hog,” meaning “he will get what he deserves” or “everyone must die”.)

In the 6th century, Church councils required fasting on all days except Saturdays and Sundays from Saint Martin’s Day to Epiphany on January 6, a period of 56 days, but of 40 days fasting, like the fast of Lent. It was therefore called Saint Martin’s Lent. This period of fasting was later shortened and became what we call the season of “Advent”.

Saint Martin is also credited with a prominent role in spreading wine-making throughout the Touraine region of France and facilitating the planting of many vines. Martin is also credited with introducing the variety of grapes from which most of the white wine of western Touraine is made.

The feast coincides not only with the end of the Octave of All Saints, but with the time when newly produced wine is ready for drinking as well as the completion of the harvest. Because of all this, St. Martin’s Feast is much like the American Thanksgiving: a celebration of the earth’s bounty. St Martin died on Nov. 8, 397.

Sources: Wikipedia & “A Calendar of Saints”

A story about St. Martin and his namesake

November was Martin’s favorite month, because it contained his birthday, precisely on St. Martin’s Day.   Martin was finally old enough to go to the festival by himself. He put on his coat and wrapped his favorite, bright-striped scarf around his neck.  He put a few coins in his pocket so he could buy himself some hot fruit punch and a doughnut.  Then he set off to the marketplace in the center of town.

Everyone was happy and excited, and nobody noticed the beggar hunched up in a dark doorway next to the church.  Martin could see the beggar was shivering with cold.  He felt sorry for him and wanted to help him.  But how?  He could hardly copy St. Martin and cut his coat in two!

The beggar looked up in surprise. With a smile he said something in a foreign language.  Martin smiled back and thoughtfully fingered the coins in his jacket pocket.  Should he give them to the beggar or perhaps invite him for some hot fruit punch?  But this man needed winter boots, a jacket, or a warm scarf.  Then suddenly Martin knew exactly what he could do. “Come on!” he cried excitedly, waving.  “You must come with me.  Please!”

Martin led the man to a brightly lit doorway behind the church. This was the used clothing store that was run by the church and in which his grandmother sometimes worked.  Martin rushed in, put all his money on the counter, and said, “Please may I have a pair of men’s boots – or a winter coat?”  The assistant looked at Martin and laughed. “Yes, St. Martin, I’m sure we can find something.”  She got a mug of hot tea for the man and had him sit by the heater.  Then she brought him two pairs of woolen socks, fur lined boots, a shirt and a sweater, a coat, a soft hat, and gloves.

She took the beggar to a little room where he could wash and change. When he came back in his warm clothes, his cheeks were rosy, and his whole face was covered with a radiant smile.  He shook the assistant’s hand.  Then he bent down to thank Martin too.  “Wait!” said Martin. “There’s something missing…” and around the man’s neck he carefully wound his favorite, bright-striped scarf. Then Martin waved happily to the beggar and ran across the marketplace to join the other children. Inside he felt wonderfully warm and comfortable, even though he no longer had a scarf, and he hadn’t drank a drop of hot fruit punch.

Source: 24 Stories for Advent/ Brigitte Weninger, written in Germany 2015, NorthSouth Books- edited and abridged

So, here is the “punch line”. What do we do with our coins? What is Holy Trinity Parish doing for our Christmas charity?  How do we continue the work of the Saints?  Come to the Parish Council meeting next Sunday prepared to answer that question.

See Both Sides Now

 

All Soul’s Day 11-2-2018

Isaiah 25: 6-9; Ps 27: 1, 4, 7, 8b, 9a, 13-14; 2Cor 4:14-5:1; John 14: 1-6

The celebration of All Souls Day is a day in the life of the Church that is unique. What other day better shows the result of Easter, the long –term impact of the resurrection? The joy of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning is the other side of grief and loss.  The difference the two is beyond our imaginations; and Biblical writers in our readings today use several approaches in attempting to describe it.

In Isaiah, the joy of the resurrection is described for us in symbols. “On this mountain”, it starts.  The Temple in Jerusalem was built on a hill – the “temple mount” it was called.  Living in Virginia, I have come to better understand this.  There is Bluemont, Thurmont, Philomont, Airmont, so many villages that use the suffix “Mount” in their name.  “Mount” does not necessarily mean a rocky peak that must be scaled with special rock climbing equipment, although life often feels like that.  A Mount is a high place where you can get new perspective from seeing the valleys around you.

So the temple mount is a symbol of heaven, a place above us, where God “provides for all peoples.” What does God provide? The heavenly feast, a banquet, a place where there is no hunger, no needs that go unmet, where all are welcomed, where no one is subjected to prejudice and no one is marginalized.  But first, a veil, like a heavy fog, must be removed.  The veil is loss, pain, misery. When it is lifted, we see the reality of God and God’s love.  We are given real freedom, which includes freedom from death and tears.  And we will know who has saved us; it is the Lord that we had searched for, and who came to find us.  Then we can rejoice and be glad that we are finally truly with God.

Our Psalm is a song of joy for that day of freedom. We will be in the house of the Lord all the rest of our days –for eternity, and we may simply look on the loveliness of the Lord.  We will be in the presence of God and know that from the day that God first “knit us together in our mother’s womb” God has been our light and our salvation.

But St. Paul had faced death and writes in this 2nd letter to the Christians of Corinth some words encouragement, telling how God renews us each day with grace.  As Jesus lived after death, so will we, and grace is given to us abundantly now, in the same way that our needs will be met abundantly in heaven.  Paul goes so far as to call the difficulties of life “momentary light affliction” when compared to the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”.  As the Psalmist (84) says, “One day in the house of God is better than a thousand days elsewhere.  It is better to be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in the tests of the wicked. ” No matter what happens to our earthly bodies, our eternal wholeness is ensured.  Life does not end, but changes.

Finally, Jesus offers us a promise of certainty. “Don’t worry,” he tells us.  “Have Faith!”  In our Bible readings we encounter “Fear not” and “Have faith” so many times. The promise is real, all that we have told about -and more- is waiting for us and those we love.   Jesus adds that he will return to see that we are safely shown the way to the presence of God.  Jesus purposely came to earth for us, to teach us, and to better show us the way to eternity.  He opened the door, he shows the way, he evens gives us the desire to follow him.

All this is not a “description” of heaven as such; it does not provide the GPS coordinates that we might find eternity in our own way or at our own time. It is not concerned with golden streets or jewels or thrones.  Instead it tells us eternity it will be very different from the sickness, the violence, the striving for material goods, and the status and power games of earthly life.  It reminds us of how far we have to go to be like God in our love of each other.

And finally, it eases the pain we feel for the loss of those we love. Knowing that the present pain is transitory, but the goodness that is to come is eternal, our hearts dare to hope that suffering will end and be replaced with loveliness.  Carry that message with out with you- take the copy of the readings as well as the hope, as you leave today, for it is the message, the Good News, which the cornerstone of our faith brought to us. For the good news is the resurrection, that other side of loss and grief.

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)

Inside/ Outside

22nd Sunday Ordinary time 9-2-18

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8;  Psalm 15:2-5; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15, 21-23

After reading from John’s Gospel for more than a month, we need a re-orientation to the Gospel of Mark. John wrote to help established Christians deepen their understanding of their faith, while Mark wrote to a non-Jewish, or “Gentile” audience new to the faith.  One reason we know this is that Mark has to explain hand washing, and other Jewish traditions.

We’re not yet half-way in Mark’s Gospel, but the Pharisees are already plotting how they can destroy Jesus. They have already tried to shame and discredit Jesus by pointing out that the Apostles did not fast (which was required), and that they had picked some grain to eat when they were hungry on the Sabbath (which was forbidden).  Meanwhile, Jesus had raised a little girl from the dead, he had walked on water, and wherever he went, the sick were brought to him, and he healed them.  He had taught great crowds and did the miracle of multiplying the fish and loaves; it must have been an exhilarating and amazing time for the apostles.  If ministry was always like that, everyone would want to be a priest!

But now the Pharisees return to verbally attack Jesus again. When the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t keep the tradition of hand-washing, their question isn’t a request for information. It’s a challenge to his whole ministry. From the point of view of the Pharisees, a person couldn’t be from God and not wash his hands before dinner in accordance with the tradition. (Remember “germs” hadn’t been discovered yet.) Now, there is nothing wrong with cherishing Traditions that have been handed down to us, tried and true. But if we cherish tradition, we must also be careful that we are clear about what it is that we’re cherishing. Otherwise, the focus on things like clean hands and cups could threaten the whole point of God’s Law—and that is to have right relationships among people and between people and God.

The Pharisees challenge Jesus’ disciples’ failure to observe what Mark calls the “tradition of the elders” (7:5). It’s described by modern anthropologists as “The Great Tradition,” a set of practices defined, maintained, and practiced by urban-living elite Jews of Jesus’ day.   Peasants, travelers like Jesus, fisherman, and those who raised sheep and goats simply weren’t able to maintain these traditions because of the realities of their living conditions and their jobs, as well as the scarcity of water.  The Pharisee’s criticism was, from the start, very unfair and unreasonable.

So where did the tradition of hand washing start? Like many Jewish rituals, it began during the Exodus (30:19-20) from Egypt.  God told the priests they must wash their feet and hands before they entered the tabernacle (temple) tent.  The spiritual reason for this was to enter the presence of God with a pure heart.  So God gave them a meaningful symbol (hand washing) of an important spiritual truth (purity of heart).  To pray, to worship, to enter sacred space, we must prepare ourselves, as we do when we say our confession and be absolved of sin at the beginning of our service each Sunday.  We try to begin with a pure heart, with open ears and mind.

But we humans often have a way of making required spiritual exercises out of meaningful symbols. The Jews turned God’s request to begin worship with a pure heart into an elaborate and highly detailed bureaucratic, burdensome procedure of ritual cleansing with strict regulation of the amount of water, the way the hands were held, etc., etc. for which the priests received payment.  Sadly, it reminds me of my grandson’s baptism, which was so openly void of spirituality that my son and his wife never went to church again.

Anyway, before long, the Jewish ritualized cleansing replaced the spiritual exercise that it had represented in the beginning. The outward symbol of washing was no longer a sign of an inward grace of purity, but the ritual had become an end in itself.  Why was it done?  Because it was required; it was “what we do”. Religion had lost its spirituality; instead ritual controlled -rather than enriched- life.  The cleansing ritual caused people to lose sight of the goal: purity of heart.  Thus Jesus says, “Their heart is far from me, and in vain they worship me.”  He calls the Pharisees “Hypocrites” they have replaced heart-felt religion with lip service, and turned God’s symbol of washing into a type of theater.  In fact, The Greek word hypokrites means “actor.” An appropriate way to read Jesus’ insult in English would be: “You actors! Scripture may be the lines you quote, but is it not the script by which you live.”

Jesus tells the crowd that a little dirt – or anything else- on the outside of a person has nothing to do with how pure their heart is. Instead, he charges, our hurtful words and evil behavior come from inside of us. It is those muddy thoughts we do not control, those dirty images we keep in our heads, those horrible greedy and evil things humans do which destroy our purity of heart and separate us from God.

In our 2nd reading, James, always the practical preacher, gives us this definition: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God… is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Pure religion is not necessarily done in a typical sacred space. Pure religion is caring for the innocent and helpless, helping the destitute, the starving, the sick, and those who have lost hope. There is an incredibly urgent need for pure religion in this world.

James warns us, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” We must keep our focus on the goal of love, and not become lost or stained by the divisive, angry, bickering, backstabbing world. So every time you wash your hands, think of having a pure heart, with your heart, soul, and mind always ready to be in the presence of God.