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.

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4 gifts from John the Baptist

Feast of St. John the Baptist 6-24-18

This is the last Sunday in our old location.  Next Sunday, we will have Mass at 11:30 at St. Timothy Episcopal Church, 432 Van Buren St., Herndon, VA 20170

Isaiah 49:1-6; Palm139: 1-3,13-15; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66,80

 

Today I would like to look at 4 aspects from John the Baptist’s life which should be familiar and which are relevant to us as we leave this space and face new beginnings for Holy Trinity.

#1 Luke  1: 39-44 (John leaps for joy when The Blessed Virgin met her cousin Elizabeth)

“Elizabeth exclaimed to Mary, ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! For…when (your) voice…came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.’”

John is a reminder to us that having Jesus in our lives is a great and wonderful gift – so great that the yet unborn John leaped for joy. When is the last time you felt the urge to leap for joy?  When were you last so filled with the Holy Spirit that you were moved to act out your faith in a new way?

John was the one who bridged the old and the new periods in human history – before and after Christ. John is the icon of new beginnings.  Holy Trinity is in a wonderful God-given period of new beginnings.  Let us feel the joy of a fresh start, a new chance to grow in love of the scriptures, and love of our neighbors.  Let us grow in the ability to share our faith.  Let us become people that are recognized as Christians because of our love.  May God bless us with the ability to grasp new ways to be church, in leadership, in outreach, and in worship. May we find joy in creativity and change as we are moved by the Holy Spirit.

#2 Acts 13: 22-26  (John’s humility, self knowledge & recognition of who Jesus was)

“One is coming after me; I am not worth to unfasten the sandals of his feet.”

I find John’s confession that he was not worthy to kneel down and untie Jesus’ sandal one of the great realizations of human history. Do you realize the implications?  If we understand what John said, it would be impossible to pollute or waste our natural resources because of the profound respect we would have for God and God’s creation.  There would never be wars, for we would obey God’s word – we would not kill or covet or steal; for wars are really fought over wealth and land and resources.

What if we admit our vulnerability and dependency on each other? Then we would know how necessary our neighbor is to us, and really value children, immigrants, and the elderly.

What if we knew Jesus when he came to us sick or hungry or a victim of violence? I can hardly image the change in our society if we knew ourselves and Jesus.  Humility, self-knowledge and recognition of Jesus are the keys to being true church where no one is greater than the other.  Everyone who comes in our door is seeking God at some level.  Our attention must always focus on the Divine in each person.  Outward focus on others can make our problems fade in importance.  Focusing inward, on ourselves, make us a barrier to God’s love.

#3 John 1: 35-42 John directs his disciples to follow Jesus

“(The day after John baptized Jesus) John was standing with 2 of his disciples, and as he looked, Jesus walked by; he said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples, Andrew and John the son of Zebedee, heard him…and they followed Jesus.”

John was an extraordinary man. He was not owned by his possessions or his prestige.  When Andrew followed Jesus, he also brought his brother, Simon Peter.  So John deliberately sent his followers to Jesus.  John was not concerned about counting his followers.  He was concerned with freeing people from their sins, with baptism as the symbol of their forgiveness and fresh start on life.  He knew his job was not the main event, but rather he was a messenger, to prepare the way of the Lord.  He taught that we are to “bear fruit that befits repentance.”  John reminds me of the old Methodist preacher who told me, “I’m not in administration, I’m just in sales.”  John knew that he was just bringing the faith to people, and was not in charge.

Most churches need fewer people who think they are in charge and many more that are out in the trenches of life, knowledgeable about their faith, focusing on love and the Good News of Jesus. We need to act like Christians!  John was working for God, and everything he said and did was for the glory of God, and not his own glory. The Holy Spirit is not bound by rite or ritual or human doctrine, and the church is not ours, nor is the space nor the possessions, nor the people, nor the future. It all belongs to God.

#4 Matthew 11:2-19  When John was imprisoned by King Herod & sent his disciples to Jesus

“John sent word by his disciples (to ask Jesus) ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”

John was in prison for nothing more than telling King Herod that he should not have married his brother’s wife – he confronted immorality of the kind that tears the fabric of society. The letter that Bishop Ron has issued about asylum seekers coming into the US over the Mexican border is a present day example of how the Church must confront injustice and evil. John is our model for speaking out when leaders overstep their authority and damage the church or nation.  For that, John died a martyr’s death.

Consider that John, the last prophet of the old age and Jesus, the one who began the new age, both preached repentance and God’s love, and both died fulfilling their rightful place in God’s Kingdom.   John knew that Herod murdering people on a whim, and John had every reason to be fearful.  He had put his faith in Jesus, witnessed to his divinity, and, in a moment of despair, he needed reassurance that he had chosen well.  He had not lost his faith, but had serious questions, and he turned to Jesus for answers.

How do we respond when life is hard, when we are fearful and losing hope? Let us be a church where people can express doubt and fear.  Let us be a place where people are never silenced, but where people can express themselves and their opinions; a place where we can learn together and support each other, where we take care to listen before speaking and when we speak, we tell the truth.

John the Baptist has a great deal to teach us. John would be a good patron saint for this time of transition.  The real questions that face us are not Mass times or attendance.  John gives us the real questions: “How do we bring the message of love and forgiveness to our neighbors so that we all experience the joy of knowing Jesus?”  “How do we know ourselves so that we bring God’s Word to others with the gentle humility that comes from knowing God?”  “Have we identified what is really important instead of being stuck in the past or pretending ownership of that which belongs to God?” Finally, “Can we grow past fear and doubt by learning from and supporting each other with the truth Jesus gave us?”  I believe we can do these things, and we must, to fulfill the role we have in God’s kingdom.

Do We Hear God’s Voice?

4th Sunday in Ordinary time

Deut 18:15-20; Psalm: 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28

Our 1st reading today starts with a reminder of when Moses brought down the 10 commandments from the mountain (Exodus 20: 10).  There was thunder and lightening.  The earth trembled, the clouds were thick, and there was a sound like trumpets blasting.  It was scary; the people were afraid.  They believed that they could die from getting too close to God.  They never again wanted to hear the voice of God.

We believe God loves us, “and we long to see his face.” But have you ever wondered why God does not speak to us directly?  Have you ever said, “I wish God would just tell me the answer to my problems”? We complain that God does not communicate with us clearly, making it hard to know the right thing to do.

In Moses day, there was an answer to the problem – people were called to be “prophets”. A prophet does not foretell the future; a prophet just relates a message clearly and accurately from God to a person or a group of people.  Of course, that was no guarantee that anyone would do what the prophet said.  The Old Testament is filled with the stories of people who found God’s message too difficult, or found the advice of other people more appealing, which always lead to humiliations and hardships.

Our Psalm mentions one of the occasions when this happened. While traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land, God gave Moses and the Israelites manna and quail to eat.  But when they camped at a place which had no water, the people quarreled and rebelled against Moses’ leadership.  They still failed to trust when Moses told them that God would provide for them, even after they had eaten the manna and seen God’s strength lead them out of slavery in Egypt!  They rebelled against both God’s message and the prophet who brought the message.  That is why the place was named Massah (quarrel) and Meribah (rebel).  Once again, their fear had stopped them from hearing God.  The Psalm is a prayer that we might to be able to hear God without a messenger.

Finally, our reading from Mark follows immediately after Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John from their fishing to follow him. It is the first time Jesus teaches in a local synagogue and does a healing miracle.  They know Jesus only as the son of Joseph, a carpenter.  The amazement of the people is somewhat skeptical.  How is Jesus able to speak and teach with more understanding and knowledge than even the scribes, who are educated, who read and write with ease?  Why is Jesus so sure of himself and teaches as one with vast experience and understanding? He is like a prophet who confidently announces words which come from God, and heals, too!

The unclean spirit in the man recognizes Jesus’ authority. The spirit cries out, literally shrieks in fear of Jesus, as Moses’ people had feared God.  The spirit is unable to disobey and leaves the man. The people debate among themselves, trying to understand what they have witnessed.  But they cannot deny what they have seen, and the news spreads rapidly.  The fame of Jesus builds as the people recognize, even if they do not name the source of it, his authority and his power.

If only Mark had recorded the teaching! We do not know what he said, only the stunning impact he created on the people.  It is hard not to wish we had been there to experience what amazed the people so. We also wish we had the clarity of Jesus’ teaching and his presence among us.

But we do! We have 4 Gospels, 4 different and fascinating records of the life, teaching, and miracles of Jesus.  We also have all the letters by Paul and others that have been saved. We have some 2000 years of church history and Tradition.  Many wise and faithful Christians have left their legacies, their lives, their writings, their studies for us.  It is an incredible and vast collection to help us grow in the faith.  We no longer have to wonder who Jesus was.  Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit; we have the Spirit indwelling in our hearts to guide us.

But what if we fail to read or study the teaching of Jesus? We are like people who read only the first paragraph of each chapter of a book and think they are ready to attend a book club discussion. We would be like students who don’t read the assigned text book, expecting a couple of important bulletin points to be emailed to them by the professor.  Hearing just short passages on Sunday robs us of the crucial settings and background of why, for example, Jesus told a particular parable.  Jesus often refers to Moses and Abraham – how can we understand those references unless we know those characters and their stories.

Have you ever been pressed to explain or defend baptism or the Eucharist, and had difficulty? Do we take the Traditions of the church seriously? Do we learn all we can about why we pray as we do, why we have the sacraments and the depth of their meaning? No wonder we are so hesitant to tell other people about our faith and what it means to us.  For our message to be attractive to others, it must include our knowledgeable and personal experience with God as Father, Brother, and Friend.

Perhaps we think God is silent because we are silent about God. Perhaps we have stopped listening to God and focused on all the “thunder and lightening” of our culture instead.  Perhaps we still fear God, because we do not yet know God.  Oh, that today we would hear God’s voice!

 

See. Go. Stay.

2nd Sunday Ordinary time. 1-14-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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