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.”

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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.

Homily, April 2, 2017. the 5th Sunday of Lent

5lentToday’s first and third readings bring up the idea of Resurrection or rising from the dead. In Ezekiel, we see the “Dry Bones” passage maybe best known from the song “dem bones goin’ to rise again”. Ezekiel is not addressing resurrection directly, but is addressing a people captured and enslaved and dragged off to Babylon. The prophet was reminding the people that God had not abandoned them and would restore them and bring them home. From lost hope, God will give them a new life.

5lent4In the Gospel, we see Jesus is in no hurry to run to Lazarus’ side when he hears he is sick. Instead he waits three or four days until he travels to Bethany. At this time, he knows Lazarus is dead, yet he knows what he is about to do. In the middle east, Israel included, it is the custom to bury someone immediately after they die, usually before sundown. Obviously, the climate and the lack of embalming and other means of preparation of the body makes this a bit of a necessity. It was a culture, where family and friends prepared the grave and carried the person out and buried them. The reality of death to them was stark and harsh. Even for us today, death is a hard and stark reality even if we in some ways deal with it in a much different manner. With death there is a finality that all 5lent2people must confront. As Christians we see it in light of Jesus. In John’s gospel, we have seen Jesus raise a little girl, a widow’s son, and today Lazarus. The little girl had just succumbed, the widow’s son was being carried to his grave, and Lazarus was four days in his grave. Here are three instances of the dead coming back to life. Such a happening had reverberations in Jesus time, but surely raises the question of what is death, what happens after 5lent 3death even today in our time. We know Jesus said we will live forever, but what could this mean. It is not something easily answered or even understood, and only truly know by faith.

Faith tells us God is love, and that love embraces and lifts us all up. As we are joined to him in life through his spirit and his love, that union and joining is one that continues through life, passing us through that passage of death into the love-filled life of eternity. The raising of Lazarus was an important act before Jesus’ own death and resurrection to point out his power over life and death. Our lesson is to see that God’s love is always with us and even in sorrow and loss, he is there. Life as well as love itself continues in some way we will only know when we experience it ourselves.