100% God

29th Sunday Ordinary time, 10-22-17. Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Palm 96:1-10; 1Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22: 15-21

 

We start today with Cyrus. To help us understand this, and indeed all our readings today, we need to know who Cyrus was, what he did, and why Isaiah gives such glowing praise to him.

Here’s some history: Babylon came into prominence in ancient history about 1,830 years before the birth of Christ.  But the Babylon we read about in the Bible is mostly the Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar. In 586 BC they captured and destroyed Jerusalem, taking all the treasures from the Temple, killing many of the people, and taking most of the remaining population as captives to exile in Babylon.  The military tactics of Babylon were to take everything of value and kill and burn everything else. They ruled over other nations by destroying the population centers, the culture, and the very way of life of their victims.  This is why the Bible uses Babylon as a symbol and synonym for evil.

But what goes around comes around, and brutal Babylon fell to Cyrus, the Persian king, in 540 BC.  Cyrus had an entirely different style from Nebuchadnezzar. He would negotiate with nations before he used force. In the end, he ruled most of Europe and Asia, and created the largest Empire in history.  Cyrus respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered and is still recognized for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy. He established a government which –listen to this!-worked to the advantage and profit of its subjects; and he repatriated the people to their original homelands, even decreeing that the Temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt.  Cyrus is the only non-Jew to be called “the anointed one”, the same title given to Israel’s kings, because he restored the Jewish Nation.  His behavior, and by extension, his image is forever a part of Jewish history.  But God is still God, and the only God.

The truth is that Cyrus acted more like God than many of Israel’s kings. The people of Ancient Israel were to understand that their true King was indeed God, not the man who sat on the throne.  Our Psalm then, is an enthronement Psalm, which was to be sung at the annual feast where the king took his throne to symbolize God’s kingship over the people.

Moving on to the Gospel, it is important to start by saying that Jesus does not pull off a “smooth dodge” to a difficult question, but rather roughly confronts his challengers. They were immediately stripped of their pretense and proven to be hypocrites. Jesus won round one by the fact that they were carrying and handed him a Roman coin which proclaimed Caesar to be divine and had an image of him (considered by Jews to be a sinful and idolatrous “graven image”).

Secondly, is this about a 40/60 or 30/70 split between God and Caesar? No! Even the question of what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar is meaningless.  We have missed Jesus’ point if we try to sort our lives into two piles: one for God and one for the Caesar-type God-want-to-be’s.  For we were created in God’s image.  If the image of Caesar on the coin means the coin belongs to Caesar and recognizes Caesar as head of the Roman Empire, then if we bear the image of God, who do we belong to?  Who rules over our lives?  God, of course, 100%. God ruled over Caesar and all human leaders, even the Pharisees and the Herodians.  Jesus won round two when he sent a clear message of shame to them by revealing their question as a denial of God’s role in their lives.  They were resisting what they themselves taught as God’s message and they were not acting as God has taught them.

Finally, Jesus is not talking about a division between church and state.   That is a modern American concept, and would be unheard of in Judea in Jesus’ day.  It’s not about paying taxes.  That was just the cover story of the challengers. This is a confrontation regarding the teachings and authority of Jesus, and over the last few weeks we have read a total of 5 confrontations where Jesus has used increasingly strongly worded and pointed parables to shame those who challenged him into seeing their errors.  We have heard the laborers in the vineyard, the two sons in the vineyard, the landowner whose tenants killed his son, the wedding feast, and now the coin question.  In Matthew’s Gospel, all these stories are told during Holy Week.  It is as if Jesus is pulling out all the stops to help his challengers understand, and instead they become more entrenched, angrier, and increasingly determined to silence him.

The saddest paradox of this exchange is that these Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and Herodians, have Jesus standing in front of them. This is what ultimately reveals their blindness to God. It’s painful to read about the stubbornness of those men.  It’s even more painful to have people we care about in our lives who will not change their response to God.  It’s especially painful to find those hidden places in our own lives that do not reflect Christ’s love, his prayers and teaching, his generosity and patience, and his sacrifice for us.  To live our lives in God’s image, we can look to Christ.

But St. Paul had found, in Thessalonica, people who had chosen to look to Christ.  Paul leaves us more hopeful as we read what he wrote to them, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope.”  The Gospel, Paul says, “…did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”  And so, we are encouraged to seek the Gospel in Word and in Power and with much conviction, with the help of the Holy Spirit, who stands ready, day and night, to bring us a constantly deeper understanding of God, allowing us to live in God’s image.

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Forgiveness – What it is and What it isn’t

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 9-17-17                                                                                   Sirach 27:30-28:7, Ps 103:1-12, Romans 14:7-9, Matthew 18: 21-35

We use the word “forgiveness” at every single Mass. Let’s spend a few minutes talking about what forgiveness is, and is not.

Let’s start with what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not forgetting, like Christians are a group of people with voluntary memory loss.  Forgiveness is not reconciliation.  To reconcile means to establish a friendship or shared understanding of something; to come to agreement.  Forgiveness is not condoning.  When we condone an act, we simply overlook it without protest.  Likewise, forgiveness is not dismissing.  When a court case is dismissed, the legal action is withdrawn and nothing else is done.  Forgiveness is not some vague sort of tolerance.  Tolerance is when we allow or respect something as permissible.  Finally, forgiveness is not pardoning.  When the governor pardons someone in jail, he releases them without further punishment, he excuses their crime.

Most of us, including myself, would have used one or more of these words to define “forgiveness.” But we would have been wrong.  Forgiveness is not about excuses or overlooking or tolerating or withdrawing.  One dictionary definition I like is “to renounce anger or resentment against.”  It is a decision to not carry negative emotion against something some one else did.  It is not a judgment but rather a decision about our own behavior.  It is not something we create, but something we learn from the Spirit of God. Our relationship with God shows us that we can be loved even when we are at our worst.  This discovery is so enormous that we want to pass it on to others.

For starters, forgiveness is gift from God; it is an act of faith.  Two very familiar scriptures might help.  First, is Matthew 18:22, when Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother and, I suspect, tries to appear generous by suggesting 7 times.  Jesus responds, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”  Please understand that the number “7” is the number for complete or finished, or even perfect.  That’s why creation in Genesis is a “7” day event.  Peter thinks if he forgave seven times, it would be perfect.  Jesus tells him that he must multiply his answer by 10, and then add another 7 for even more perfect.  What?  It means infinite, limitless, endless. That must have taken the wind out of Peter’s sail, as it does mine.  Incidentally, that 77 is a direct quote, using the exact same Greek phrase, from Genesis 4: 24, and is referring to limits on revenge against Cain for the murder of his brother.  Jesus is talking about unlimited forgiveness- of a terrible crime. This is what brings peace to our families, our communities, and our world.

The other familiar scripture is the Our Father, Matthew 6: 14-15. “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”   It sends a chill up my spine every time I say it.  It’s very clear.  Can we say, “Of course we are forgiven; Christ’s death on the cross forgave my sins,” and still not forgive others?  There are many Bible verses that respond very clearly to that.  One is Colossians 3: 12-13, “Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy & beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,  bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must do also.”

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful actions a Christian can perform.  The only thing harder than forgiveness – is to not forgive.   To not forgive is like carrying a brick around with you, every day, always, everywhere.   To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then find out that the prisoner is not someone else, but yourself.  And to not forgive tends to grow into something even more ugly.  If we are angry and hold a grudge against one person, we are likely to begin to generalize that anger to other people.  Ethnic hatred and racism, for example, are often based in anger against one individual or event.

We may say we will “try” to forgive people.  Here I need to quote a famous movie character, Yoda, in Star Wars.  Yoda said, “Try not! Do or do not! There is no try!”  When we try, we leave open an expectation of possible failure; better to decide to do.  Forgiveness is not wimpy; instead it tends to be an attribute of strength and confidence.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until we have something to forgive.”   It might be well to look at forgiveness as purposeful commitment or a jouney.  A therapist, when writing about forgiveness, suggested that forgiveness is a long-term plan, and may require a wait 10 or more years before the other party is willing to respond.   He urges people to continue to make regular contract for however long it takes.

The tragedy of the 2006 Amish schoolhouse shooting in Pennsylvania will always be with me. When a man entered a schoolhouse and killed 5 little girls, the Amish families not only offered forgiveness but also food, help and friendship to the shooter’s wife and children.  They did it because they knew the Gospel, not to look good.  They had a firm commitment to obey the Word of God, knowing that, despite the pain and trauma in their lives, it was the right thing to do, and it was that choice that would restore love and peace.  It was a powerful witness to the world.  We also have that choice available to us.

So we can boldly say, “I will show Christ’s love by forgiving those who do not even ask for forgiveness. I will leave fairness and justice in God’s hands.  I will forgive others just as the Lord forgave me.  Today I will give myself the gift of forgiveness. ”  Is there someone I need to forgive?

Homily September 10, 2017- the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

23 sun1Today’s gospel is interesting and possibly misunderstood by many who read it. In context, Jesus is instructing his disciples about community. We must remember that in Israel and surrounding areas, the make up of was very tribal or community or family oriented. Within a particular village or town everyone was related in some fashion to others. Everyone knew everyone else and disputes would be worked out with the help of elders if needed. It is very different for Us to understand it completely in a time and different culture. But certainly, Jesus was 23sun2speaking of reconciliation and the necessity of getting along if we are to follow his command to love one another. In a marriage, hopefully, a couple learns to settle disputes and disagreements before a wall is between them. Certainly this is what Jesus had in mind in saying those offended or offending should seek out and 23 sun 3resolve hurts and things harmful to a person or the community. A second step would be to bring in two or three other to help. If that failed then bring it to the community. In many ways this works in a small community and in the early church that Matthew was writing for.23 sun4

Matthew lived a long time ago and much has happened over the centuries to Christianity. Division, arguments, disagreements, and all other manner of human failure has proven that humans are far from perfect. Despite all this, Christ’s word is still among us and we are still called to live it out as best we can. We are still called to a community of faith and love and living as Jesus called us to do. That is why we as a church, welcome all who come and do not judge but embrace all who want to follow Jesus and journey with us. Let us pray we can invite and lead more to come and follow him.

Four Steps of Attitude Adjustment

22nd Sun Ord time, 9-3-17

Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm: 63:2-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

Our readings today could easily be titled: The Four Steps of Attitude Adjustment. Let me explain what I mean.  We start with The Prophet Jeremiah in our first reading.  This is step one. Like most of us when we are compelled to do something we don’t want to do, Jeremiah is whining.  He blames God; he says he was “duped”/ “seduced”/ “misled”.  Jeremiah wants God to know that he is doing this job as a prophet against his will.  He is frightened by the threats made against him.  He is tired of being ridiculed.  He himself thinks the message God has given him to share with the people is a message of violence; he is disguised with himself for delivering the message.

So why does he continue to be a prophet for God? Jeremiah has tried to stop.  He promised himself he would stop.  But then the message “becomes like a fire burning in my heart”; he says he cannot hold the words in, he feels weak and out of control. The way Jeremiah describes his situation is almost like compulsive behavior or addiction; he is full of negativity and resistance.

The next situation, step two, starts off well. We look at is the apostle Simon Peter in the Gospel.  Peter has just been given the name of “Peter”, or the solid, stone foundation for the Church.  Peter is given the keys to heaven, and great authority; it seems impressive.  But then, in just a few moments, it goes from ideal to awful.  Jesus begins to talk about suffering and being killed.  What had sounded glorious has turned grisly.

Peter is so full of himself that he tries to set Jesus straight; he says Jesus is wrong, mistaken.  Surely the Son of God will not allow himself to be victimized by the chief priests, of all people! Peter had been thinking that he was strong enough to stand in his own power, but that illusion is swept away.  Jesus calls him the Devil.  Ouch!!  Jesus persists, saying that Peter must expect to take up his cross!!  Had Peter signed up for crucifixion??  He would lose his life? OMG!

Step 3 starts off badly, with our Psalmist saying, “my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.” He clearly is not in control of his situation, either.  He sounds like a guy in real trouble.  But he is actually seeking greater power than himself.  Suddenly it changes; everything changes.  He looks into the temple and sees a vision of the power and glory of God.  He sees kindness so intense it is a greater good than life itself.

Praise for God comes out of his mouth without thinking – he blesses God, lifts up his hands in worship and calls out for God.  He is no longer hungry or thirsty – he feels as if he is at the richest and most abundant of banquets, where every possible desire for food and drink will be satisfied.  He feels sheltered; he clings to God as a steady and reliable force for his life and is filled with joy.

Finally, we read from St. Paul, who has already suffered a stoning and beatings for teaching the Good News of Jesus.  He does not even consider his own strength or power.  He offers instead the “mercies of God.”  He tells us the attitude of success is one of offering our self to God, like a living sacrifice, and offering worship to God.  Paul adds that we do not need to behave like the people around us, but rather our attitude needs to tune into God, changing and renewing us, enabling us to know the will of God.  Then we will understand what really is good and pleasing to God.  Instead of trying to control a situation, or bend a situation to our desires and benefit, we should choose to be molded into a new direction, a different understanding, where we can begin to understand how to be loving and just and true.

RECAP

Jeremiah wanted life to be easy and pleasant. He just wants to fit in, have some buddies, and go with the flow. He is very conflicted; God is cramping his style.

Peter is a good man. Power and authority also sound good to him, but only if he’s on the winning side.  He loves Jesus; but he’s hoping for maybe a little upward mobility?  He wants God to defeat the Roman army and take charge.

Next our Psalm writer is looking for God, even in the midst of thirst and hunger. He goes to the temple, and finds a spirit of glory and kindness.  Without one bite of food, he feels filled and satisfied.  Without any power of his own, he feels safe and joyful with God.

Last is Paul, who can open himself fully to God’s plan, and wants to conform to God’s ways; he is ready, and urges us, to commit – body, soul, and mind.

This is not a process that necessarily comes from intelligence, maturity, experience or background.  It is not a program where you just follow 4 easy steps. It is a gift of the Spirit which we can choose to nurture and follow.  For each person, the path is unique; ironically blissful and demanding at the same time.  Yes, the retirement plan is outstanding, but living the Godly life is unexpectedly and deeply rewarding.

My friends, keep up the good work.