Stiff Neck?

For June 2, 2019, Ascension Sunday

Read: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3,6-9; Ephesians 1: 17-23, Luke 24: 46-53

Have you ever had the experience of hearing an idea for the first time, and then suddenly hearing that idea again in different circumstances? I told you that Fr. Peter had given an excellent presentation at the General Assembly on Liberation Theology, a school of religious thought that aligns very well with the writings of St. Charles of Brazil, the founder of our own Catholic Apostolic Church.

Fr. Peter described two Church Fathers of the early Christian Church, and their theology in the years 300 – 400 AD. The first was St. John Chrysostom, who wrote this, “If a poor man comes to you asking for bread, there is no end of the complaints and reproaches and charges of idleness, you upbraid him, insult him, jeer at him.  You fail to realize that you too are idle and yet God grants you gifts!” He certainly was direct!

The second was St. Basil the Great. He wrote, “(The rich) seize what belongs to all, they claim it as their own on the basis of having got there first, whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest for those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor!”

The point is that the church in the early years strongly emphasized that we must be about the love that Jesus taught and practiced. Mercy, good works, generosity, love – those were the necessities of faith.  But by the Middle Ages, the Church began to struggle to maintain itself against growing secular power: Kings and Kingdoms.  In response, the Church teaching shifted more to personal salvation.  The mindset changed from relieving suffering of others to viewing suffering as a way to be free of sin in preparation for eternal life.  This new focus was somehow stretched to mean that other people’s suffering was good for them, somehow could be written off as deserved or even necessary, and not any of my business as I pressed to ensure my own passage thru the pearly gates.

The very next week after I heard Fr. Peter’s presentation, I managed to borrow The Time is Now, the newest book from Sister Joan Chittister. If you’ve had the experience of reading anything written by Sister Joan, a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania, you know hang on to your hat.  She could well be compared to a strong wind storm.

She begins her book by describing her early days in the convent. A leader would read a passage from a Gospel, and ask the listeners to see themselves in the scene.  So, Jesus debates with the Pharisees or raises the girl from the dead, and then turns and sees you.  He holds you in his gaze, and asks, “What will you do for these ones – simply stand there looking on?”  The purpose of this was to develop a spiritual practice, but it soon became apparent to Sister Joan that she was to immerse her own life in the life of Jesus.

Out of this would emerge a personal challenge to her own focus, her own behavior, her own life. She learned the teaching of the early Church Fathers which Fr. Peter quoted, and found embedded in them the primary spiritual obligation: to reshape a world that has lost its focus, its integrity, and its understanding of Jesus’ teachings and his purpose in our world.

Sister Joan says, “The question, ‘What will you do?’ is at the core of spiritual maturity, of spiritual commitment.” We may tell ourselves that by risking nothing, we can lose nothing.  Sister Joan says we like our religion served calmly, silently.  And we fail to realize that when we risk nothing, we actually risk everything.  When there is no room in the inn for hungry children, when people fleeing violence must live in tent cities, when there is a growing culture of poverty or paying workers pennies to create clothing which sells for hundreds of dollars, when affordable housing is replaced by mansions, and wars are being fought where the innocent are used as shields, what are we to do?  Stand there, looking on?

It is not a new question. Jesus rose from the dead.  He appeared to believers for 40 days after his crucifixion, he presented proof of his resurrection, and the Holy Spirit was given to the Church.  Jesus directed us to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.  And then he was taken from their sight.  And two heavenly beings appeared, asking, “Why are you standing there looking up at the sky?”

Some people want to focus on “he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.” It was written by someone who had no words to describe what happened.  We are savvy people, we understand special effects, our satellites and telescopes and probes reveal the secrets of the universe.   But surely, you have seen something in your lifetime that was impossible to describe using the words. For instance, I have never talked with a brand-new parent who had words to describe the experience of birth.  The Ascension is a moment of wonder, mystery if you must, unable to be articulated in a way that we have.

Likewise our various accounts of the Ascension don’t exactly match. Each author belonged to a different faith community, and had a different emphasis in their preaching. They used settings that matched the background of those they were teaching.  Any good teacher does that, making the lessons appropriate to the life and culture of the students.  But they all proclaimed the same message – Our Lord is Alive, is with God, and the Holy Spirit is within us. We say: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

So, now what will we do with this information? Do you want the risen Jesus to remain in the Bible story, where you can close the book, put it on the shelf and go on with life?

Do you want to leave the risen Jesus to the clergy, and let them carry the burden of faith? Do you want to leave the work of Jesus to the Social Service agencies, have Bill Gates fund it, have public safety keep the homeless off the streets?  Shall we let Mother Nature take care of the earth? Is the ending of Thrones or the newest superhero movie enough for you?

Or do you want to stop looking at the sky and invite people to church, to share your wealth of talent and experience and compassion with people who simply need some help?  Do you want to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the dying and visit those in prison? (Don’t blame me, those are Jesus’ ideas.) Do you want to get dignity by giving dignity, pride by nurturing pride, joy by sharing joy?  Do you want to give people a voice by speaking out? Do you want to make a difference and be a Christian, not just a consumer?

If what I see in the church today is accurate, I would guess that moving our focus from the Love for one another taught by Jesus to a focus on personal salvation wasn’t the answer to growth of secular power. We are here together in this place because of a Catholic Bishop who decided loving each other, especially the poor and powerless, was essential.  If Sister Joan is right, having taken her cue from the angels in the white garments, then standing and looking is the wrong answer.   There is no joy to be found there.   I say, “My neck is getting stiff looking up, let’s look around us, see the needs and opportunities, and get busy.”

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What is Glory??

5th Sunday of Easter, May 19, 2019

Read: Acts 14:21-27, Ps 145: 8-13, Rev. 21:1-5a; John 13: 31-33a, 34-35

Let’s look at the Gospel, then the 1st reading from Acts, and finish with Revelations.

First, the setting of this Gospel: we are at the last supper, shortly before Jesus is arrested. Jesus has washed the apostles’ feet, and Jesus has dipped his bread into the dipping oil along with Judas, identifying Judas as the one who will betray him.  Then Judas left the room, which is the first sentence of our reading today.  What does Jesus say now?

Our Missal offers this translation of the Greek: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once.”  Now it would entirely inappropriate to laugh at this, but I feel that little tickle in my toes that makes me want to throw up my hands and say, “WHAT??”

But I know John is working hard to tell us something important. Let’s see if we can’t make some sense of it. First, what does “glorify” mean, Mr. Webster?

Glorify: “to give glory, honor or high praise, or to worship.” If something is glorious, it has great beauty, splendor, is magnificent or wonderful, like a glorious sunset. To have glory is to be highly praiseworthy.

Next, let’s read the translation in the “Living Bible”. It is a less precise translation of the Greek, but very helpful with things like this.  Jesus said, “My time has come; the glory of God will soon surround me – and God shall receive great praise because of all that happens to me. And God shall give me his own glory, and this so very soon.”

So we end up with this: Now is the time! God is going to give Jesus praise and honor; God’s own greatness will be wrapped around Jesus like a blanket, because of what Jesus will do on the cross.  God will also receive high praise and worship because of what Jesus does. Then Jesus, very shortly, will become highly praiseworthy himself.

John wants us to understand the importance and the consequences of Jesus being willing to be crucified. Jesus is innocent, without sin.  We are not so innocent.  He is willing to bear our sins on the cross.  I don’t necesssarily mean sins like murder and robbery.  But the sins of jealousy, of pride, of desiring more power than we can handle, the thoughts and desires that leave black holes in our souls, the more subtle sins of us all.  And the consequences are not just that an innocent man “pays back” our sins, but that we are forgiven, and life triumphs over death and light overcomes darkness.  The way to eternal life is opened, because we are now made pure again, now able to live in the light of God’s purity.

But there is one last thing Jesus has to say to us: the part we have in this. We are not just bystanders watching a play.  No Christian can just be a spectator.  He says, “If you want to remain part of me, want to be identified with my glory and praiseworthiness, here is what you have to do: Love one another. Love one another as I have loved you.  This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  That is not easy; it is difficult, but easier than crucifixion!  Jesus was and is here with us to show us how to love. Love will be our badge, our uniform, love will be the sign that all can see and recognize, when we love our neighbors in this special & intense way.  Is it true, do we wear our love, so that people know?

Now let’s jump ahead a few years to the travels of Paul and Barnabas. These two men traveled long distances, primarily on foot, and they frequently were in danger, suffered from need and poverty, ridicule, and gave up their lives at home.  They proclaimed the good news to city after city, building up churches, training elders and leaders.  They strengthened the spirits of those new disciples, urging them to be strong in their faith, preparing people to undergo ridicule, slander and suspicion, and modeling it all.

Finally we hear from St. John in the Book of Revelation.  John was captured in a persecution campaign by the Roman Emperor Domitian and sentenced to Patmos, now known as Patino, 55 miles southwest of Ephesus. Patmos was a small, rocky and barren island where many criminals of Rome were sent to serve out their prison terms in harsh conditions. There were mines on the island that the criminals were forced to work in them. John was sent to the island because the early Christians were considered a strange cult group who were viewed as trouble makers within the Empire.  John had taught the Good News of Jesus and refused to worship the Roman gods. After John had arrived, he began to have visions, recorded in the Book of Revelation.

John wrote to his followers, “I…share with you in Jesus the persecution (the really bad times) and the kingdom( the really good times) and the patient endurance (it takes to get from one to the other).”   John fully understands how really difficult life is.  No doubt his visions enabled him to endure the hard conditions, and his writings encouraged other Christians who were being persecuted.  He talks of the future, the eternal life, with a new heaven and a new earth, where God’s dwelling is with the human race.  God will always be with them as their God, and death, mourning, wailing, and pain will end.  And God says, “Behold, I make all things new.”

So we started with an explanation of the importance and consequences of the crucifixion. The end result is to make us able to be God’s people, face to face.

Our task is to embrace that enormous love and live it, to give it to everyone. We are given role models, people like Paul and Barnabas and John to demonstrate in very large ways what they did with that love.  And finally we are given a glimpse of what is to come.  That provides reassurance that our faith is not in vain, our efforts to love are not worthless.  Our face is the face of Christianity to other people, and we must wear our love in a way that people will recognize it and say, “I want what you have!”

7 Sundays

3rd Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lent is Like…

8th Sunday Ordinary Time, year C , March 3, 2019

Sirach 27:4-7; Psalm: 92:2-3, 13-16;1 Corinthians 15:54-58; Luke 6:39-45

Lent is about to begin.  I was reading our Scriptures for today, and two thoughts came to mind. First, I was struck at how well all the readings move us into the mood of Lent.  They start us thinking about our speech, our thought patterns, how we worship God, and the impact that the resurrection has on our lives.  Secondly, I was struck all over again by how skilled and effective Jesus is as a teacher.  As I read the three short parables he gives in our Gospel, I think about how Jesus gave us concrete images which made what he was saying so very understandable, and how what he says becomes easy to apply to everyday life.  In Matthew 13, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed… or the kingdom of heaven is like a net” and so forth.

So, today, I ask, “How should I explain Lent to you?” Following Jesus’ example, what can I liken it to, that you would better know what it is?

Lent is like a woman who wants to stay healthy. Does she eat rich chocolates all Lent long?  No, instead, after Valentine’s Day, she sets aside chocolates, ice cream, and pastries, and sets her eyes on salads and lean meats.  She labors over a stationary bike, she glistens as she holds Warrior 3 pose in yoga class for ten full minutes; she uses her towel as she struggles with the elliptical machine.  After a while, her breathing is deeper, her blood sugar is lower, her heart and muscles stronger.  Lent is like this, a time when we labor and struggle to build our spiritual strength.  We purposely make time for this change of habits, for inwardly, we knew all the time, that it would benefit us in ways we didn’t even know about yet.

Again, Lent is like the farmer who wants a good crop. Does he sit idly in the pub all winter, watching the football games with the guys or take naps on the couch?  No, there is work to be done.  He must mend the fences so that the animals can’t become lost.  He must clean and sharpen the plows, overhaul the engines on the tractors and machinery, to prevent breakdowns.  He places his order for seeds.  He prunes the fruit trees before the sap begins to rise, so that the fruit will be large and healthy.  Likewise, we need to turn off the TV so we have Bible study time and time for prayer and meditation.  We must sharpen our understanding of the symbols of the wine and the wheat.   We must mend our fences with those we have hurt or offended, we must sow the seeds of good deeds, and trim back our lives from the dead branches of self-centeredness and disregard for the needy and overhaul some of the details of our lives.  Then our crops of charity and faithfulness will be large.

Again, Lent is like a widow who lives alone. Her children have scattered to the West Coast and to Atlanta with important jobs where vacation time is scarce.  Her husband recently died from cancer, and her friends are moving south.  Does she sit silently in her home and mourn her losses during Lent?  No, she looks to it for strength, for comfort and solace.  She calls her friends to encourage them in their troubles and illnesses.  She has taken over writing the Prayers of the Faithful for church, because writing them gives her an opportunity to make those prayers real in her life all week.  She reads the Sunday scriptures every day to enable herself to pray about them and seek out the subtle thoughts.  She now can better apply the lessons of Lent to her life and her attitudes toward her family, her neighbors, and her world.  Likewise, Lent is a time for us to go face-to-face with losses, with broken dreams and shattered expectations.  Lent is a time to re-build relationships with Christian friends we have neglected, and to open our hearts to new friends with whom we can find mutual support.  Perhaps you will make a visit to a shut-in or give time to a charity.  Or maybe find new ways to become active in our church and be part of all the work that goes on from the closing blessing of one Mass to the opening greeting of the next Mass. We can discover the rich blessings of preparing our self for every Mass by reading the scriptures ahead of time and finding lessons in them that are new and seemed designed just for our ears.

Lent is not a season that must be endured, again. Lent is more like boot camp, a point of beginning.  It is a time of intensity that is unequaled in the Church Year.  In some ways, we have to set aside our knowledge of Easter morning, of the resurrection, to really feel the fear of those apostles who recognized that Jesus was in true danger.  We must enter into working hard to face the agony and fear of Jesus as he faced a level of torture we hope to never experience. But some day we will be sick or injured or alone or disappointed in people we thought would be there for us, and will need Lent to prepare us.

We will be unjustly accused of wrong doing at some time, perhaps shamed and ridiculed. Jesus is our model to follow.  We will need to understand the depth and complexity of the washing of the apostles’ feet, as good leaders must be prepared to humble themselves for those they serve.  Can we grow during this time and be fed, on all levels, by the wine and wheat of the Eucharist?  Will be drawn into the mystical meanings of our liturgy and find more there than we ever imagined?

There is no way to celebrate the resurrection; there is no way to grasp the essential message of Easter, without the very strenuous and troubling work of Lent. It’s tough stuff.  Lent is a journey into the ugly side of life, into the darkness of human cruelty, and into the pain of disappointment and despair.  But at the same time, it is a journey into faith, into the answers and responses of Jesus to all that ugliness.  It’s a real-life experience, not preparing us for beauty, or farming, or aging, necessarily, but certainly preparing us again, in a new way, for the grace and mercy of God, and for the certainty of God’s faithfulness to us.  So let us work and cry and suffer together.  Let us do Lent in full this year.  Together we can find meaning; we can find strength and peace we never knew existed.  We will pack away the joyful Alleluias and the Glorias, and find the rock of faith that comes when we answer the call to life beyond rote and ritual.

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.

Choices and Decisions

21st Sunday Ordinary time 8-26-18;

Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ps 34:2-3, 16-21 Ephesians 5:2a, 25-32; John 6:60-69

We need to take the readings in order today because they work nicely together to make a particular point about choices that we face.  For a Bible scholar, Joshua 24 is highly important in the history of Israelite traditions. It preserves remnants of an ancient liturgy for the renewal of the covenant.  Joshua led the tribes of Israel into the Promised Land after the death of Moses.  He wanted to have the people united by worshiping a single God.  Joshua calls all the people and leaders together, and he puts before them the question of who that God will be.  Will it be one of the idol-Gods that the neighboring tribes worship?  Joshua makes clear that he and his family will worship the Lord.  And the people also vow to worship the Lord, for the Lord was the one who freed them from slavery.  They have seen the great miracles the Lord did to protect them and feed them. The Lord was their God and they were the Lord’s people.

The reading from Ephesians is also about a choice. Because of cultural misunderstandings, and a very questionable translation of very complex Greek grammar, this passage has been inappropriately used to twist the love of Christ for the Church into an invalid excuse to claim that St. Paul is demanding that wives be “subordinate” to their husbands.  As the passage was read today is closer to the real meaning.  It starts by saying that Christ chose to come to earth because he was deeply in love with us, a love which far exceeds anything else we experience in this life.  You know, of course, that the word “Church” as used here is not a religious institution created by humans.  Rather, it means all of the people who believe in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and who strive to follow Christ’s life of love.  Through Christ’s gift of love, we are presented to God in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish.  We are to model that relationship in our love of each other, particularly our spouse, but we are to commit to love within a marriage with that level of depth and intensity.  Paul is not talking about convenience or hormones, but choice.  Once again, the covenant agreement that the Israelites made with the Lord is the same image as marriage vows between spouses.

Now we are ready to look at a choice to be made between Jesus and the people he is teaching. A reminder – anyone could or can be a disciple of Jesus.  The disciples of Jesus were and are a very large group of people who want to live the life he teaches.  The Twelve Apostles are a small group who were selected by Jesus to be with him through his entire ministry on earth.

It’s best to go thru this Gospel reading closely to see what is happening. When we left off last week, Jesus had just said, “The one who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him…” Not surprisingly, many of the disciples respond, “This saying is harsh; this sort of talk is hard to take.”   The sense of the Greek is that what Jesus said was somewhere between fantasy and offensive. They hear him say it, but they cannot accept it.   Jesus says, “Does it shock you/ scandalize you, or does it shake your faith?”

Have you ever found yourself in that position, where something shook your faith? I knew an Independent Catholic priest whose young adult son died of cancer. His father was so shocked that he walked out of his church and never returned. He felt certain that prayers would save his son, that he would be healed. He was so overcome by his loss that he walked away from his faith. The idea of disciples walking away from Jesus because of something harsh or scandalizing is not just an event in the Bible; it is something that happens now, too.

So then Jesus proposes a question. “What if you were to see him ascending to heaven?” Of course, John’s Gospel was written after the ascension of Jesus, so this question makes perfect sense to the readers. Back in verse 42, the crowd had already protested when Jesus had said he had come from heaven (“don’t we know his father and his mother?”) But this crowd couldn’t imagine such a thing.   He continues, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless.” Flesh is like flowers that wither and fade, worth no more than to be thrown in the fire.

You are probably thinking, but – Jesus had just said in verse 52 that …”my flesh is true food…the one who feeds on my flesh …remains in me and I in him.” Perhaps you also noticed in the first two readings in our series from John, Jesus talked the “crowd”. For the last two weeks, Jesus has been talking to “the Jews” and now Jesus is talking to his “disciples.” We simply do not know how or when or why or who made these changes. Some people find the seeming inconsistencies in Scripture difficult, or scandalizing. One theory is that later editors of the Scriptures have made changes or added teachings to make the reading reflect the changes that happened as the understanding of theologians became clearer and more unified among the churches. As archeology and scholarship advances, we come to different conclusions about the early church. Our knowledge of the way words were used and our understanding of the culture of Jesus’ day have grown. We have the guidelines of the Bible and Tradition to help us get through these changes with our faith intact and even enriched. And the Holy Spirit is there to translate the words of Jesus to us in a true and helpful way. We have been given the Spirit that we might have a fuller life, more abundant truth, and the Spirit’s intercession with God. As Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you are both Spirit and life…”

At the time John wrote this Gospel, there were heresies that taught that Jesus was not divine, but only a prophet or wise man. That is why Jesus is described here as all-knowing, having divine knowledge of who will believe in Jesus’ teachings, as illustrated by the comment that “Jesus knew from the beginning who would not believe in him.” In no way does this suggest that people lack the full capacity of free choice and or that they cannot change.

Again, a note about culture: in the Mediterranean world, allegiance between each apostle of a group and its leader was strong. The leader recruited each apostle personally and individually. So Peter answers Jesus’ question about the apostles leaving. Peter’s response translated into Mediterranean cultural values is: we have made a commitment to you, no matter what (“we have believed”). I think John is hoping that we will recognize Peter as the leader of the apostles after Jesus’ ascension, and that we will be strengthened in difficult times by his response. Peter gives 3 reasons not to leave the faith in the face of crisis. One, there is no alternative to the One true God. Two, Jesus has given us the words of eternal life. His teaching not only has wisdom, but Jesus has opened the way to eternity. Lastly, Peter has been convinced by what he has seen and heard; that Jesus is the long-awaited “Holy One”.

Even, or maybe especially, when life is hard, the way seems dark, and we struggle, we must continue in the faith, stay in the Word of God, and cling to the Holy Spirit. That is the decision Peter made, along with the other apostles, and the choice that John is urging us to make, too.

What is an Inclusive Church?

We are an inclusive church. When we do not strive to be inclusive, we fail to be what we are called to be.  Our church was never intended to be a group of “cookie-cutter” people, all of the same race, socio-economic status, nationality, age, gender, or sexual orientation.  It was intended to be the church that Jesus, out of love, showed us how to be. Very deliberately and purposefully, Jesus called the people on the edges of society to be part of his mission.  Being inclusive is not being weak about our beliefs.  When we are inclusive, we know exactly what we believe, and why we believe it.  Here is an example of how one person saw an inclusive church:

 

Immigrant’s Apostles Creed

            I believe in Almighty God, who guided the people in exile and in exodus,
the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon,
the God of foreigners and immigrants.

I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean,
who was born away from his people and his home,
who fled his country with his parents when his life was in danger.

When he returned to his own country he suffered under the oppression of Pontius Pilate, the servant of a foreign power.
Jesus was persecuted, beaten, tortured, and unjustly condemned to death.
But on the third day Jesus rose from the dead,
not as a scorned foreigner but to offer us citizenship in God’s kingdom.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,
who speaks all languages, lives in all countries,
and reunites all races.

I believe that the Church is the secure home
for foreigners and for all believers.
I believe that the communion of saints begins
when we embrace all God’s people in all their diversity.
I believe in forgiveness, which makes us all equal before God,
and in reconciliation, which heals our brokenness.

I believe that in the Resurrection
God will unite us as one people
in which all are distinct and all are alike at the same time.
I believe in life eternal, in which no one will be foreigner
but all will be citizens of the kingdom
where God reigns forever and ever. Amen.

 

Attributed to Rev. Jose Luis Casal, Director of Presbyterian World Mission, himself an immigrant from Cuba.