Focus on God, not food!

 

17th Sunday Ordinary Time,  7-29-18

2 Kings 4:42-44; Ps: 145:10-11, 15-18; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15

This Sunday starts a series of 5 readings taken from the Gospel of John. This is year B, when we expect to read from Mark, so why are we in John for 5 weeks?  It’s no great theological issue, just practicality.  Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, and there simply isn’t enough of Mark to read all year.  So John supplements our readings.

But the Church hasn’t simply found 5 random readings from John. All of them come from the 6th chapter of John, which has been called the “The Discourse (discussion) of The Bread of Life.”    And it starts with the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, a story we have probably all have heard.  A large crowd followed Jesus to hear his teaching and see the healing of the sick, so Jesus went up on a mountain, where the sound of his voice could be best heard.

Of course, the image of a mountain should bring up an image in any Bible student’s head – the image of Moses meeting God on Mt. Sinai, the gift of the Ten Commandments and the covenant.  Moses led the people to freedom, and here is Jesus, with the gifts of God for the people, to lead them to new life.  John uses these images and comparisons often in his Gospel to help people understand the importance of Jesus, his teachings, and the role he will play in our lives.

I need to say up front that this Gospel was not given to us to teach about sharing. Sharing is important and most of us are to some degree infected with the greed of materialism that is an epidemic in our society.  I would love to see a more even distribution of food and resources in this world, but that’s not why John wrote this passage.

Sadly, I also have to add that this is not about feeding hungry people particularly. Hunger is only the setting in which John tells his message.  Feeding the hungry is a terrific and urgent need in this world.  The most recent numbers tell us that every year more people die from preventable hunger than died in the Holocaust, yet the food to feed them is available in this world.  Clearly hunger is a huge and pressing problem, but that is not what John is trying to tell us here.

So, Jesus turns to Philip, asking where to buy food for the people. Philip is the go-to guy here because Philip was from Bethsaida, which is where the story takes place.  Oddly enough, it would seem some scribe was startled by this question, and not wanting Jesus to appear as less than the “Son of God”, assures us that Jesus is just testing Philip.  It is a humorous and enlightening line in the story which serves to remind us that the Bible is not always a book you can simply pick up and read with understanding without studying the background information, the culture, and a sense of the point of the passage.  Trillions of hours of study have been spent comparing the many manuscripts we have and knowledgeable scholars can sometimes trace where a scribe’s comments have altered the text.

But Philip is not concerned with where to go shopping, because the cost would far exceed possibility. Then Andrew appears with a boy who has 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.  What does this seemingly simple verse tell us?  Well, three important things actually.   First, where have we heard about barley loaves before?  In our first reading – the story of the 20 barley loaves feeding 100 people!  That story would have been a classic story well known to the audience John wrote for.  Bingo!  We know this story has something to do with the power of God.  There is a miracle going on here.  But Jesus is not a prophet, like Elisha, but far greater, and will feed 5,000 people with 5 loaves.  A multiply of 1,000 tells us we have surpassed human ability to provide food, and moved into the range of divine.

But secondly, barley was an important crop in Jesus’ land. It was drought resistant, grew well in the heat, and ripened quickly.  The harvest would have been at Passover time, and Passover has some very important implications in our story.

Passover was near, John mentions. It was the event that began the escape from Egypt for the Israelites, one of the cornerstone events of the Jewish faith.  Passover is about the death of the cruel slave holders and the freedom of the slaves.  Part of the journey to freedom for the Israelites included the bread (“manna””) which God gave the people to eat as they traveled to the Promised Land.  It was not just bread, but “supernatural” bread, the “daily bread” which Jesus included in the Lord’s Prayer.  John’s Gospel is full of Passover references, linking the Jewish history to the death and resurrection of Jesus.  And where else does our eternal life with God begin but with the resurrection of Jesus?  A barley loaf may sustain life, but the gift of life is in the resurrection.

Our Psalm says, “The eyes of all look hopefully to you, and you give them their food in due season; you open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” John wants us to stop focusing on a desire for food, and focus on our natural and necessary desire for God.

After the people reclined to eat, Jesus gave thanks, blessing the food, and they ate as much as they wanted. Will God only portion us out small allotments of grace and mercy?  Will God weigh out tiny morsels of love?  Are we permitted only a few drops of joy in God?  No, no; God gives us grace and mercy, love and joy in abundance!  God is a God of plenty, of more than we ask for.   Luke (6:38) has a wonderful way to put it:  “…give, and it will be given to you; a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.”

And what about the fragments? The early Christians had a collection of teachings called “Didache”, which tells us how they understood the fragments of left-over food. It says, “Concerning the fragmented bread, ‘We give thanks to you, our Father.  As this fragmented bread was scattered on the mountains, but was gathered up and became one, so let the Church be gathered up from the four corners of the earth into your kingdom.’”  Still today, we treat the crumbs left from our Eucharistic bread as precious creations from God’s hand, as the Body of Christ, and we do that as we remember how God gathers people, more numerous than bread crumbs at the table, as precious lives that would have yet another life in the light of  God’s Kingdom.

But our passage ends on a somber note. The people saw the sign, the miracle of the food, and called Jesus, “the one who is to come into the world”.  Moses had told them of the “one who is to come” back in Deuteronomy (18:19), but John is warning us that Jesus is not just a replacement for an earthly military king like David.  John wants us to understand the true meaning of why the Son of God came to earth.

So our task today is to remember why we “do” Eucharist. “The very word, “Eucharist” means to give thanks.  We remember Jesus, and we give thanks for his love for us, his sacrifice of himself for us, for what he taught us and for how he showed us the way to live fully, deeply, and with love.  We remember that he is the Son of God, the Holy One who came to fulfill a prophecy from long ago, the One who had victory over sin and death, the One who changed everything.

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SLOW SEEDS??

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time 6-17-18

Ezekiel 17:22-24, Ps 92:2-16, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, Mark 4:26-34

All of our readings are beautiful and encouraging today. Our first reading, from the Prophet Ezekiel, brings us poetry about God’s love for us. After the Exile to Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the people of Israel feared that all the promises God had made to King David were forgotten. Ezekiel assures them that God has not forgotten, and that he will restore them as his people. God’s people will be like a “withered tree that blooms.” In fact, God will take from the very top of the giant cedar tree a tender shoot, a small branch, and he will plant that shoot on a mountain top. In time that small tender shoot will become a giant cedar tree. This is a poetic reference to a descendent of the last King from David’s line who was still alive. The promise that the Messiah will be a descendent of King David will still be fulfilled in Jesus. Not only that, but all the nations of the earth, represented by all the birds that nest in the tree, will gather once again. It is a wonderful image of evil overcome and goodness triumphant.

The Psalm also speaks of flourishing palm trees and great cedar trees, trees bearing fruit even in old age, vigorous and sturdy, a testament to God’s goodness and justice. Again, this poetic image brings us confidence in the permanence of God and God’s care for us. We can depend on the eternal security we find with God. We find strength and stability, as well as refreshment and restoration with God.

St. Paul in the 2nd reading speaks as a missionary who has traveled thousands of miles for God, facing multiple threats to his life as well as rejection and ridicule for his faith. He has found that wherever he is, home or away, in life or in death, his goal is to be pleasing to the Lord.   We will all face a final judgment, and all that we have done will be open to view. But that does not frighten us if what we have done has been good and we have led a life in imitation of Christ’s.

In our Gospel, we have two parables about seeds. Both parables deal with the same problem…why things appear as they do if the kingdom of God is indeed present. How can we experience evil and sickness if God is God of the world? We ask the same questions that the people asked of Ezekiel – has God forgotten us? Why is there so much evil, and why is life so difficult?

In the first parable we have today, the Growing Seed, the man sows, he sleeps and rises (this image indicates the passage of time) and then the man harvests the crop. There is every reason to believe the man also tills the soil, weeds, irrigates, and protects the crop while it grows. Ask any farmer – they do not sit idly by and wait for God to do all the work. Likewise, farmers will tell you they do not create the growth. They do the sowing and God begins process of growth.  But the parable says in effect, “The Kingdom is like a farmer who goes about his normal process of sowing seeds in the earth. Then the hand of God produces a plant and its fruit, and then comes the harvest.” It is a process of waiting patiently for the crop to ripen, and only at the right time can the harvest begin. The Kingdom of God will be ripe at the right time; the reign of God will be complete in God’s time.

The parables of the Sower who casts seed on the path and the rocks, in the thorns, and in the good soil, the Growing seed and the Mustard Seed ( all found in the same chapter of Mark) all answer questions and challenges to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom. Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom earlier in this same chapter of Mark when he told the parable of the man who sowed seed on the path and on the rocky ground, in the thorns and on good soil. He told his disciples then, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God…” But the people’s response was, “where?” and “why aren’t we free from Roman rule?” and “why are we still poor?” and “why are bad things still happening?” So Jesus tells us that it’s not a simple thing, this Kingdom. It is not an outward remodeling job of the world, where workers come and repair things on a schedule. Rather, the Kingdom is a total change of human hearts. It is happening at just the right speed, and the passage of time will be necessary. But there was a time of sowing (interpreted as being in the ministry of Jesus), a period of time is necessary for growth (now), and there will be a time of harvest. Traditionally in the Bible, “harvest” is the time of judgment and the end of time. Like the plant growth, some of which is not visible because it happens under the ground, we will not see all that happens during the growth of the Kingdom.

So we do not bring in the kingdom – we are the servants of the King who continue to sow and weed and water and protect, but we are not the cause or creator. Our own lives must follow the same process. God continuously reaches out to us, teaching us to obey, to reach out in love, to better understand the scriptures, to worship with a more pure heart. God is constantly planting the seeds of Godliness in us and others. We must nurture those seeds so that new life may grow within us. The process is slow, often delayed by our own distraction with other things.   The change within us must occur at what we might call a sub-cellular level, which cannot be rushed. I have often wondered, at the rate of one wafer per week, how many years it would take for all of my body cells to be made of Jesus. I haven’t done the math, but I am sure that the answer is, “a lifetime.” The fullness of the kingdom will come when the time is right. We can be confident that God, the cause and creator, is at work and God can and will bring us safely to harvest. Jesus is reassuring us the process is in motion; the goal has been set and will be achieved.

It is easy to become discouraged when we see dishonest people with tremendous wealth and power. It is hard to watch liars and thieves prosper. It makes us angry when we see innocent people suffer, it is terrible to see children shot down in schools. It is hard to watch people loose their savings and freedom to sickness or injuries which might have been prevented. We want to shake our fist at God, question the very existence of God, or demand an explanation of this world which seems filled with evil and injustice. Why would we not question that the kingdom of God is here, now?   How and when will the Kingdom finally overcome everything we judge to be wrong and unfair?   That is the question that we are given an answer for today.

Paul says it best when he writes, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7) The Prophet Isaiah says God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), and St. Peter said, “Do not ignore this one fact, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2Peter 3:8-9)

Continue to sow the seeds of love and truth, and believe.

Another View of Easter

 

4th Sunday Easter, April 22, 2018

Acts 4:8-12;  Psalm 118;  1 John 3: 1-2;  John 10: 11-18

 

Today, we look again at Easter, starting with the Gospel of John. John inserted teaching dialogues by Jesus between some of the action scenes. The teaching we read is about Jesus’ coming death in terms of “The Good Shepherd”, which then leads into Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. John, you see, identifies the raising of Lazarus as the turning point when the High Priests began to plot to kill Jesus. These scenes flow together to build up to the crucifixion. We are doing exactly what the disciples did after Easter –looking back at what Jesus taught, and discovering new meaning in the light of the Resurrection.

Here are the key Gospel verses: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I am the good shepherd and I will lay down my life for the sheep. This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.”

Background: Palestine is at the intersection of Asia, Europe and Africa, so there are many large wild predators – Persian Lions, Cheetahs, Lynx, and leopards. A shepherd would have good reason to protect himself, to allow these fierce cats to take a sheep, and not try to intervene. The people understood the grave danger of being a shepherd. In this passage, Jesus repeats his promise to lay down his life for the sheep 3 times; making a sacred oath that he will give his life for us.

Notice that Jesus does not put limitations on this oath. It’s not, “if” the sheep is well behaved or “if” it is obedient. In fact, there are no “If” clauses in the promise. We are given this loving protection without reservation. Those listening to Jesus, not realizing he was talking about people, found this promise extravagant and unnatural.

Our 1st reading is a continuation from the Book of Acts we have been reading since Easter. Acts is a thriller; it is high drama, with conflict and death. It is a coming of age story for the disciples. It is an exciting history of the early church. It is a self improvement book, a great stand-alone read.

Anyway, today we read the 3rd of Peter’s sermons. The 1st was at Pentecost, the 2nd was when Peter healed a man crippled from birth and was arrested for healing him. This 3rd sermon is Peter responding to the charges of the High Priests the following day. You immediately notice how bold and articulate Peter is. He is no longer the rough fisherman who denied Christ on Good Friday and fearfully hid in the locked room on Saturday. He is “Peter infused with the Holy Spirit” now.

Peter starts by telling the High Priests that the cripple was healed in the Name of Jesus (get that – merely the name has power to heal), AND that Jesus has risen from the dead. That blast of information is enough to knock the High Priests off their feet. Then Peter quotes Scripture, just as Jesus would have.

He bases his argument in Psalm 118, which shows the High Priests that they have made a terrible error in judgment. They have rejected the very person and the salvation promised in yet another promise, by God, long ago in a Psalm of King David. Jesus is the very cornerstone, the support piece on which rests our salvation. Jesus is the “promised one”. Our lectionary does not include the Priests’ response; you can read it on your own.

But our lectionary does give us part of Psalm 118. If you were a youth group, I would have scripts with your parts identified by speaker so that you could act this out. It is a beautiful piece of ancient liturgy; this is dramatic liturgy at its best, with speaking parts for the priests, the people and the king. It was written for the occasion of a great victory, a celebration which proclaimed God as their strength in danger. Each speaker proclaims God’s mercy, and there is testimony of how God saved them from what seemed to be certain death. They were surrounded on every side in battle – the “enemy encompassed me like bees”, the King says. “They flared up like fire among thorns. I was hard pressed and was falling, but the Lord helped me.” Who has not felt like that at some time in their life?   Who has never felt overwhelmed and that their problems were greater than their strength?

But the Lord makes the tiny and weak victorious over evil and death, just as the Lord had brought tiny Israel, overwhelmed by larger and greater forces, to military victory. At that time, Israel thought it was the rejected stone. But now we understand the one who was rejected as Jesus.   And Jesus has become the anchoring base for our lives, our church, and our world. “This,” the king in the Psalm announced, “is the day the Lord has made,” using the same expression we use to announce Easter. The priests respond to the king with a blessing: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.” We make church relevant when we see and celebrate the movement of God in our own lives, here and today in our liturgy.

So Jesus has told us that we are of great value to him, so much so that he will suffer and die for us. Realizing that Jesus is alive, Peter is filled with the Spirit of God, boldly preaching that Jesus loves us and protects us from evil. Peter confidently places his own life and well-being in Jesus’ hands. And the Psalm assures us that God has loved and protected believers from long ago. These readings give us another viewpoint of the meaning of this Easter Season and why we celebrate it with such great joy.

Looking for Joy

4th Sun Lent 3-11-18

2 Chronicles 36:14-16; 19-23 Ps: 137:1- 6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21

 

I struggled for days with this ….I wrote at least 3 different homilies…all of which ended in the recycle bin. Be glad!  Then I had an altogether brilliant idea.

Actually, it wasn’t the idea that was so brilliant. It was the color of these vestments that was brilliant.  Whew!  Rose with a glow! What is the point of this rose?  This happens twice a year, once during Advent and once during Lent.  It is the half way mark in those liturgical seasons.  It is when the mood lightens at little.  It is Joy breaking through the somber tone of the waiting in Advent, breaking through the examination of our lives and our faith in Lent.  But why joy??   The “why” of the joy never sticks in my brain quite as well as “the what”.

So we look for joy in the readings. The first reading is about how the people of Judah lost their faith and ended up captives in Babylon.  Nothing so joyful there (but they do finally return home).  The Psalm is a lament, a song of loss and regret, grieving for the city of Jerusalem, which has been destroyed. No joy there.

Ah, but we have the 2nd reading, from St. Paul, who was writing the Good News of the Resurrection to people in the city of Ephesus.  They were hearing this for the first time!  Perhaps, just perhaps, we could put ourselves in that frame of mind, and see if we can find the joy there that seems to elude us.

So, what does Paul say? First thing is that God is rich in mercy.  Mercy, as we talked about 2 weeks ago, is when God does not give us what we deserve.  We sin, we fail, we do what we know we shouldn’t do, we don’t do what we know we should do, and still God is not ready to pounce on us with punishment.  Why not?  Because, Paul writes, God has “great love” for us.  Everyone benefits from that great love.  Being loved is what the human spirit needs more than any material thing.  In fact, God loves us – greatly – even as we are in the middle of the worse moment of our lives, when we are behaving really badly.

Paul says that at that moment, when we had our backs turned on God, God saved us. God rescued us from ourselves and raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus, so very much more than we might dare to expect or even hope for.  Paul calls this “grace”.  Grace is when God gives us what we do not deserve.  God’s plan is to show us the immeasurable riches of grace.

Now, that is amazing…and pretty joyful the more you think about it. I know of no one who finds a child or employee or student who are behaving at their very worst, knowingly being disobedient or disrespectful, and then takes them off to a place filled with joy and showers them with love.  The joy-filled riches of grace are beyond counting, but they are not locked up in a bank, and never tarnish or lose their value.

If fact, God is ready to give us what no human really deserves, and that is to be with God for ever, face to face in real, pure love and joy. Paul makes it clear; we are saved by grace from punishment.  We cannot earn enough bonus points on our credit cards to get a trip to eternity with God.  Paul says it two different ways to make sure we get it: first, “By grace you have been saved through faith,” and second, “It is the gift of God; it is not from our actions or behavior, therefore no one may boast” (no one is better than the others).

Faith without good deeds, of course, is dead, as James wrote in his short letter (read it sometime). Faith is only real and alive in our lives when we are doing the good things that we were created to do.   Paul wrote that God created us for the good works that already are waiting for us to do; we should find meaning and discover our very lives in doing good things.  Grace seems to bring about this desire to act out in love.

People want joy, but they look in all the wrong places. Paul tells us the right place to look.  We find joy when we believe God.  Some people confuse joy with happiness or good circumstances.  But, joy is a gift from God, and not dependent on where you live or beauty or strength or even good health.  Joy is the result of accepting the “great love” of God. We wrap God’s love around us, we feel it, we deeply breath it in, we cling to it when we have nothing else.

Our Gospel reading backs Paul up. It also says that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn or punish us, but that we might be saved through him; and whoever lives in God’s love and joy comes to the light that their good works may be clearly seen as done through God.

So we continue on toward Easter. Ahead is the difficult half of Lent – facing the cruelty and selfishness that sometimes enters the human soul.  We have to admit how low our price is for betrayal, how quickly we let fear overcome us, how we use others for a small moment of gain.  But joy is an act of rebellion against the darkness, and so, for today, we focus on the joy of the triumph of the cross, and the power of love to overcome even death.

Meditations on the 2nd Sunday of Lent

2nd Sunday of Lent 2-25-18

Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Psalm: 116:10, 15-19; Romans 8:31b-34; Mark 9:2-10

Many primitive cultures have practiced human sacrifice, including the ancient tribes in the Middle East. Archeologists tell us that the area outside of Jerusalem, the valley of Gahenna, was once a place where human sacrifice was practiced.  It was a place that provoked great fear. These very early people instinctively knew that to sacrifice a human life was the greatest and most supreme sacrifice that could be made. More grapes and wheat could be grown. More lambs and goats could be bred. But humans came only from the mysterious event of birth.

I am always a little sickened by the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. It seems to go against every thing we hold as right and decent as well as everything we believe about a loving God. Even the ending, when the ram appears and is used as the sacrifice, leaves me uneasy about the story. Nevertheless, since we are told that God is good, and since Isaac was a child who was brought to life by a miracle, we should know that Abraham was right to trust God.

Sacrifice was a significant ritual for the Jewish people. Historians tell us that the blood from the lambs ran in red rivers down the streets of Jerusalem from the temple during Passover. We usually think of gifts as benefiting the person they are given to. At Passover, animals were sacrificed so that the givers could receive something valuable; as a community they recalled being protected from the plagues God put on the Egyptians, and thereby were freed from slavery and lead into the Promised Land. Animal sacrifice ended when the Temple was destroyed, only some 30 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, but a ritualized image of sacrifice remains in our own Mass.

The Lectionary uses all this to set the tone, to prepare us to think deeply about the crucifixion, which occurred at Passover. It is framed in the immensity of the thought of a loving and all-powerful God willingly sacrificing his son to a frenzied mob motivated by little more than silver coins and the desire for power. That mob continues to haunt us; too much of human interaction is still mob mentality, where superficial information and ignorance leave people open to faulty conclusions and horrific actions.

It is not hard to understand why Pontius Pilot handed over Jesus to the mob to be crucified – giving them what they wanted was the only way to avoid a full-blown riot. The worst part of the Good Friday reading of the Passion is when the congregation is expected to read the words the crowd spoke: “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” At that point, I always say a prayer that I will never be part of a mob chanting like that.

I recently heard from a woman who had lost both her husband and her only daughter within 2 months. Naturally, she was in shock. Among other things, I suggested that she lean on the Blessed Mother, because she too, as a widow, had lost her precious child in the most terrible of circumstances.   It was an image that helped this grieving woman.

Likewise, the Lectionary gives us the story of Abraham and Isaac to help us understand the idea of God losing his precious and sinless son to mob who had no respect for his life. At the same time, our Gospel reading reassures us that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God. Jesus is transfigured, and his clothes become an unearthly dazzling white; he talks with Elijah and Moses. God says Jesus is “my beloved Son.” Afterwards, Jesus warns his disciples not to tell anyone about this except when the “Son of Man had risen from the dead,” which confuses the disciples even more.

So what are we to take away from this muddle of sacrifice and death, alongside transfiguration? The Abraham story assures us that God’s promises can be trusted, even when the situation is dire. Indeed, the children of Abraham did become as many as the stars in the sky, through his son Isaac.   The transfiguration story is also to build trust for the apostles, because very shortly their faith will be badly shaken. Jesus is the son of God and will rise from the dead. The apostles could trust in this message from God, as can we, for the risen Christ is the primary foundation of Christianity. If the 2nd Sunday of Lent were to have a name, it would be “trust”. This Lent, let us set aside our fears of the future, and trust that Creator, Son and Holy Sprit will be with us as we travel together through these 40 days leading to Easter Morning, and beyond.

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.

Building Houses & Keeping Promises

4th Sunday Advent 12-24-17

2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Ps: 89:2-3, 4-5, 27-29; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

 

I raised my children in a small town in upstate New York.  The town promotes itself as “historic”, meaning that history is about all that’s left – no industry, and only a few stores.  When my middle son finished high school, a job as a janitor at the elementary school opened, and he saw that as his only chance for a steady job with benefits.  But God had not made this young man to be a janitor.  Not that I have anything but respect and admiration for school janitors, but it wasn’t the right job for him.  And that Christmas, my cousin gave him a miracle in the form of a Radio Shack TSR-80 home computer.  My son was re-born as a highly respected “IT guy”.

Our first reading today is about King David. One day, King David had a chance to take a breath from the large military campaigns which had made Israel safe from hostile neighbors.  David realized he was living in a “cedar palace” while the Ark of the Covenant and the place where the nation worshiped God was still in a tent, just as it had been since his ancestors fled Egypt.  He began to make plans to build a house for God.  But God had not meant David to be a house builder.  Not that God has anything but respect and admiration for builders, but that wasn’t the right job for David.

So God would take care of the building, by having one of David’s sons- Solomon- build a magnificent Temple.  God had another role for David.  It would be another sort of “house”.  My own father still used the term “house” to describe his lineage, his ancestors. God’s gift to King David was to be the beginning of long line of Kings, what we might call a “dynasty”, a traceable line of names and history, leading to the long-awaited Messiah, the savior of God’s people.  Matthew’s Gospel spells out those 28 generations from David to Jesus to make the point clear.

The other problem with David building a “house” or temple for God was that David had missed an important lesson about his relationship with God. David was thinking like a King who built loyalty with his staff and soldiers was by rewarding them with power and prestige.  God had no use for David’s rewards.  God reminds David that when the prophet Samuel anointed David as King, David was a young man who spent his days guarding sheep.  God had made David a King who guarded God’s people.  God was the reason for David’s military success.  God was the reason that Israel was enjoying peace.   God had been with David in every circumstance, in every location, in the fields and in the palace.  God is greater than any building; God is not defined by space or décor, by canvas or cedar.  Buildings weather and decay, but God’s blessings are eternal.

The Psalms, many of which were traditionally attributed to David, stress one of the other themes which build during Advent: the promises of God, specifically the fulfillment of God’s promises. Thru the centuries, those promises remain alive and, in God’s time, they are fulfilled and renewed.  Today’s Psalm says, “I will sing forever of the promises of the Lord…my mouth will proclaim (God’s) faithfulness.” (God) had made a covenant with…(David)..(God) will …establish David’s throne for all generations.”  The House of David remains with us today as Jesus our Lord and Savior.

The 2nd reading, from the Letter to the Church at Rome, frames this idea differently.   King David most likely thought of God’s promise of his dynasty, his lineage, in terms of an earthly throne.  The full implications were not known to him.  The Gospel of Jesus that Paul had been preaching is referred to here as a “mystery.” Saint Paul lived in a time when people were just beginning to sort out the message and full implications of the birth of Jesus, his life and teaching, his crucifixion and resurrection.  Believers were starting to made sense of how those promises had been fulfilled.  The mystery of God’s promises continues to open to each new generation and each new believer as they consider their own lives and their own relationship to God. We find that we are part of the promise – we live in a particular part of the revelation of the mystery. We have been woven into the very fiber of the building of the Kingdom.

The angel Gabriel brought to Mary a mystery that at first was troubling, even the cause of fear. It was a mystery that the child could be divine, yet born as a human child.  The child she would conceive by the power of God and the Holy Spirit will be given the “throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary’s child fulfilled the promise to King David.

Neither King David, nor St. Paul, nor Mary expected God to fulfill the promise in the way that it actually happened.  They each had their own expectations.  Yet each of them willingly moved forward in faith and trust. They struggled against fear and opposition, against seemingly unconquerable difficulties and, yes, danger…in the full knowledge that God was with them and that God’s plan, however mysterious or obscure, was best.  They were able to do that because they knew God kept his promises.

Christmas is a time of miracles and joy. Now we will once again experience the thrill of the gift of this ancient promise.  Even 2000+ years after the historical event, even before we fully grasp the how and where and why, we feel the thrill of something that changes our lives in that tiny child.  King David and St. Paul and the Blessed Virgin Mary all chose to open their hearts, and their lives, to the mystery – to be personally part of a great miracle of love for every human being who has lived or will live.  As we move from Advent to Christmas, we enter a time when past, present and future come together.