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.

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Those Teeny Tiny Christmas Tree Lights and Advent

2nd Sunday of Advent 12-10-17

 Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; ; Psalm: 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14;  2 Peter 3:8-14;  Mark 1:1-8

Our Gospel reading is the opening 8 verses of Mark’s Gospel.  Mark chooses to begin with a quotation from Isaiah, chapter 40.  Mark clearly has chosen carefully, and we need to understand why he uses Isaiah and how he uses the images in it.

Chapters 40 to 55 of the book of Isaiah are referred to as the “Book of Consolation of Israel.” Israel was overrun by the Babylonian army some 500 years before Christ.  It is a story of great shame and loss. Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple looted and burned to the ground.  The people were captured and taken from their homeland into exile.  According to Isaiah, the refusal of the Israelites to follow God’s laws, and their unwillingness to obey God was the reason for this great tragedy.  But now the Israelites are being forgiven by God, and they will be granted their long-awaited freedom and return to rebuild their homeland.

It is a time of reconciliation. Isaiah is told to speak tenderly to the Israelites, or literally to “speak to their hearts”.  The expression is very maternal- suggesting that Jerusalem is the “mother city”, and the people are children returning to a mother’s love.  Although their punishment was severe, the Lord is returning to their midst, and the Lord should be welcomed as a great and majestic King.  The people will restore the road for God’s arrival, as God will restore his people.   Once again the Glory of the Lord will be in the temple, and the people will know God’s presence.   It is a level of joy only known to people who have suffered great losses and held against their will.

Purification was historically a big issue for the Jews. Ritual bathing was required after breaking any of a long list of laws before one could worship God again.   In a land of deserts and limited access to water, washing took on a significance that is unfamiliar to us.  Jewish tradition has it that Adam stood in the Jordan River for 40 days after he ate the fruit which was forbidden.  The prophet Elisha had Naaman wash 7 times in the Jordan River to heal his leprosy.  Traditionally, any one converting to the Jewish faith must do ritualized bathing in water.  This constitutes a rebirth, and brings purity “like that of a child just born”.  Sound familiar?  The Essenes (the Desert Fathers), of all people, were baptized each morning!

So Mark is using Isaiah, the Prophet of all Prophets, to announce that Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, is coming to restore his people. It is obvious that John is the voice crying out, literally, in the desert.  Mark knows that it has been some 300 years since Israel has had a prophet of God in their midst.  John the Baptist looks and talks and preaches like an old-time prophet.  John presses the people to repent of their sins and be right with God.  Instead of preparing the road for the king, John was preparing the people’s hearts for the King. The Psalmist says it with poetic grace: Justice (John) shall walk before (the Lord), and prepare the way of his steps.

What was the attraction to John? It wasn’t the wardrobe. I think that we all are looking for second chances.  We all, to some degree, carry around a burden of regrets for some of the choices we have make and the selfish acts we commit.  We all have a little part of us that relates to the Israelites who thought they were smarter than God and ended up being homeless captives in Babylon.  We find John in a scene stripped of the liturgical niceties; just a man in camel skins, in the barren land, next to a muddy river, providing what the people needed.  Their religious leaders at the Temple were too busy with finances and politics.  So the people from the countryside and people from the city of Jerusalem were streaming out to John.  No vestments, no holy orders, no stained glass windows, nothing but raw confrontation of sinfulness and the urgent desire for forgiveness and inner peace.

But John’s purpose in life was not to only address the people’s thirst for reconciliation. He was to create anticipation, a longing for more.  He was to proclaim the coming of the Messiah.    The road that John was preparing was for One mightier and holier than John, One who would baptize with, not water, but the Holy Spirit.  You see, people were confused about the messiah- would he be a fierce warrior who would battle the Romans, or a savior, who would bring salvation and peace?  The Messiah had been promised in Genesis; people despaired he would never come. Psalm 90 answers, “A thousand years in (God’s) eyes are merely a yesterday.”  Our 2nd reading from the 2nd letter of Peter, echoes that, saying, “Do not ignore this one fact…that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years..”  But this letter does not leave the issue there.  It goes on with, “…what sort of persons should you be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…”

And that is where the road of Advent leads us: to ask the questions of “what sort of persons we ought to be,” and how do we “prepare the road” for the Lord? How do we wash away the old presumptions and excuses, realize our failings, open our hearts for the Lord’s arrival?  How do we move toward holiness and hasten the coming of God?  I think sometimes those teeny tiny energy-efficient lights we have on our Christmas trees are a symbol of how much light we really want to have shine in the darker places of our lives.  But we have already been baptized with the Holy Spirit, so we pray, “O, Come Lord, O, Come Jesus, O, Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.”

Be Prepared

32nd Sun Ordinary time, 11-12-17 Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm: 63:2-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18;  Matthew 25:1-13

 

Once again our Lectionary is playing a trick on us. What does it do?  Well, it leaves out the first word of our Gospel!  What is that word?  The word is, “Then”.  Why does it matter? For two reasons: first, it lets us know that this part of Matthew’s Gospel is a series of teachings and parables about the end times.  This parable is not free-standing and disconnected.   Second, it tells us that Jesus is teaching about things in the future.  In fact, all of verse one is important.  Jesus says, “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to (or “will be like”) ten maidens who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.”  This lets us know we need to read it like a parable, which is a lesson which uses a story to explain some important point.  The story isn’t the point, and the characters and setting aren’t the point – but the story is a way to make a point.  The kingdom of heaven is “like” the whole story, not just parts of it or people in it.

One of the common problems with this parable is that people get hung up on the unimportant setting of the story. We don’t know a lot about the historical wedding traditions of Jesus’ day, and what we do know indicates that many areas had a variety of traditions.*  Where the bridegroom was coming from or going to is not part of the story.   This is not about the church, or the maidens, or lamp oil.  When we focus on these things, we miss the point of the story.  Let’s talk instead about what the parable teaches.

This is a parable that was in part clarified by the Dead Sea Scrolls, found only some 50 or so years ago (the writings of the Christian community at Qumran). The document 4Q434a* describes messianic times when evil ends, the earth is filled with God’s glory, and sins are reconciled.  “(The Messiah) will console them in Jerusalem…like a bridegroom with his bride he will live for ever…his throne is for ever and ever…”   This fits with Matt 9:15 (Cana wedding), Mark 2:19-20 (When the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples do not fast), and Luke 5: 34-35 (also in response to questions about fasting); these are all scriptures where Jesus used the term “bridegroom” for himself.  So, the coming of the “bridegroom” in our Gospel refers to the second coming of Jesus.*

Matthew also uses the idea of “I do not know you” in Matthew 7:23 when Jesus tells his followers, “No every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” In other words, those who do not do God’s will be told, “I never knew you; depart from me.” Scholars suggest that this was a common expression of the day for a teacher whose followers failed to follow through with what they had been taught*.  This expression reminds us that there will be a final judgment – those who have done the will of God will be separated from those who chose their own beliefs and agenda.  There are consequences for filling our days with goals that do not match God’s will, and leaving love and wisdom until “later.”

This parable was told to Jesus’ followers. But it also was a warning for all who heard him, Jew, Pharisee, or Gentile, us, then or now – to be prepared for Jesus’ return.  The surrounding teachings in Matthew chapters 24 and 25 all stress the need for being ready for the end times – whether it should come earlier than expected or later than expected.

Indeed, the parable just before our reading is the parable about the servant who is drunk and abusive to the other servants because the master is away, and is not expected for some time. The master arrives sooner than expected and the servant is punished and thrown out.  The servant was not ready.  Now we read about women who are not ready when the bridegroom was delayed.   In this instance, the parable is based on this delay.  The delay* is the factor which reveals which women were prepared and which were not.

Some people have suggested that Matthew conceived this parable to assure Christians who feared that Jesus would not return.  But there is no evidence of that here. Rather, we are reading about wisdom and foolishness in regard to being prepared.  Jesus uses “Wisdom” and “readiness” as synonyms.*  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all emphasized Jesus’ statement, “heaven and earth will pass away…but of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, not the Son, but the Father alone… therefore, be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.”

So, we are to be alert. We are not to sit on the sidelines, with a ready supply of beer and pretzels, and watch life go past us.  Our call to readiness and preparedness is to faithfully fulfill our Christian calling.  When we care for our neighbors, near and far, we actively display our faith for all to see. We are like lights in the darkness of selfishness and greed.  We display love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  (Galatians 5:22) In one of the great paradoxes of life, we find that by choosing a path which may appear difficult and burdensome, we find joy and peace.

We proclaim victory over death. We pray God’s Kingdom will come.  We work so evil will come to an end.  This is a way to live – each day and in every circumstance, a frame for how we approach life; the basis for every decision we make.  Wisdom, Solomon wrote, “is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her.  (Wisdom) hastens to make herself known, anticipating (our need for her)”; Wisdom will not disappoint us.  And Jesus, upon his return, will find us ready.

 

*From Klyne R. Snodgrass’ book, “Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the parables of Jesus.” William B. Eerdmans Publisher, 2008, Pages 509-518.

Homily July 9, 2017, the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

14sun1 (2)My yoke is easy and my burden light. The Priests and Scribes and Pharisees and Elders of Jesus time represented the wisdom of time and the law of the land. It was to these leaders of the temple that the people looked to be faithful followers of God in the tradition of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and king David. These men over the years had codified laws and rules and prescriptions that were specific and numerous and were controlling of every part of life. These rules and laws went from the washing of hands 14sun3before eating to worshiping. Lost in all this was the personal nature of God. Jesus today is telling them that the revelation of his Father is hidden from the wise because they are blinded to Jesus. It is through Jesus that they can see and experience the Father. In this way they come to know the father because they know Jesus and only he can reveal and bring the father to 14sun4them. So, Jesus is revealing to them the true wisdom, and that is his person. He is the way to the father and he is telling those so strongly bound and burdened with so many prescriptions to come to him and rest and give up their burdens. His yoke, his burden is easy in comparison. His call is love and concern for others to live in the person of Christ.

Today, we should remember Christ’s words and remember that wisdom is in his person and actions. Rules and laws are meant to be a service or guideline for order, yet without compassion and mercy and living in the person of Christ are they meeting the test “My yoke is easy and my burden light”? Truly our real rest and peace is in him.

Homily June 18, 2017, Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ

eucharist2Today’s readings are about food, manna in the desert and Jesus’ flesh and blood as food for us. Our food we call the Eucharist or communion, that is we come together as a eucharistcommunity to celebrate Christ’s life and passion and death and resurrection and are fed his body and blood. John tells us today that whoever eats Christ’s body and drinks his blood will have Christ in him and will be able to have eternal life. As manna was meant for the Israelites as a people escaping slavery and without food and a need to reconnect not only with God but also with each other as a community and nation bound together. This need of coming together and acting as a nation is a strong reason why they remained in the desert for forty years as they bonded their lives eucharist5together and became once again God’s people. So it is for us, that Christ’s body and blood binds us to him not only individually as he comes to us, but also a community that is bound together to look out for each other and to bring Christ’s Word to the world. It is a principle act of the church which brings us together frequently so as to be prepared to live out and proclaim our faith and love to the world. As our body craves and needs food, so does our soul need Christ’s special food which keeps us ready for the journey that we walk together. And so in this special way, Christ is present and comes to us and remains with us as he has remained with the church throughout the ages. His love is ever-present and remains in us.