Love, not Legalism

27th Sunday Ordinary Time 10-7-18

Genesis 2:18-24; Ps 128:1-6 ; Hebrews 2:9-11;Mark 10:2-16

These readings are often used to preach about the ideal marriage. Marriage is a life-long job, requiring patience, gentleness, compromise, graciousness to sometimes carry more than your half of the relationship, and maturity to weather the hard times.  I have been married and divorced twice, so that is all I have to say about marriage.   But this is an interesting Gospel today, and I do have a few things to say about it, for it is NOT primarily about marriage.

It is about what we will call “Legalism”. I don’t like labels, but legalism is generally defined as depending on laws rather than… faith.  In Galatians 3:3, Paul writes, “How foolish can you be?  After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles…by…the law, or because you have heard about Christ and believe?” Another problem with legalism is that someone is always blamed.  The people of CACINA say that we “are Catholic without the guilt”.  What if we could approach issues without finding fault? “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:1

Jesus and the disciples leave Galilee for the last time on their way to Jerusalem.  Jesus has spent time on the road privately teaching his disciples, and discussing his upcoming death.  Their public ministry begins again now, and the Pharisees arrive from Jerusalem in an attempt to justify their plot to kill him.  They are “testing him;” Mark uses the same word he used in Chapter One, when Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days and enduring “testing” by Satan. He is clear that the Pharisees’ intent is evil.

The topic of divorce was a minefield for the Jews. If Jesus denied the legality of divorce, he will sin by contradicting the Law of Moses.  If he tried to make divorce a morality issue, he will be following in John the Baptist’s footsteps.  John was beheaded by Herod for that approach.  Various groups of Rabbis had positions on if only men could ask for a divorce, the acceptable grounds for divorce, and so forth & so on, endlessly.  The Pharisees thought for sure they could trap Jesus in this web of opinion; surely Jesus would offend someone.

Jesus responds to their question about divorce by asking “What did Moses command you?” Moses tolerated divorce as an existing custom for the purpose of stabilizing the community.  But God said in our first reading, that two people are to “become one flesh.” Jesus, Moses, and the Pharisees all understood that God’s command did not include divorce.  Once again, Jesus defeated the Pharisees’ ploy by using the Scriptures to prove their question was not sincere, only a political trick.  But that left the disciples riled up about the issue of divorce.  They later privately ask Jesus, and he simply states a fact: “whoever divorces their spouse and marries another, commits adultery.”

Is Jesus throwing us under the bus? About 35-40% of all Americans who have been married are divorced. If you have read the Gospels, Jesus never throws any sincere person who comes to him under the bus! Read Mark 2:17: “Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do.  I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners.” Are we not aware of the times Jesus outright forgave the sins of people? In Luke (19:10) Jesus said: “For the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost.” And in John 12: 47, “If anyone hears me and does not obey me, I am not his judge—for I have come to save the world and not to judge it.” We always start each Mass with, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  There is great power in those words! In Mark 3:28-30, Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, all sins and blasphemes will be forgiven … (except) blasphemes against the Holy Spirit.”

So here it is: Jesus said that divorce is wrong, and forgiveness is waiting for all who confess and repent. It doesn’t seem like a secret to me!  In fact, I think the voice that accuses any divorcee of committing a sin that denies them the sacraments, is the voice of evil.  Jesus responds to that voice in John 10:10: “(Satan) comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  Revelation 12: 10-11 says it again, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers (and sisters) has been thrown down… And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb…”

Jesus even stopped those who would stone a woman “caught” in adultery, with these words: “I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again.”  Jesus makes clear that adultery is a sin, but forgiveness is freely given.

All in all, our reading is another trap for Jesus to deny God or the Scriptures, set by men who already have decided to break God’s law themselves by killing Jesus. This time the issue chosen to bait the trap is divorce.  But Jesus prevails by knowing Scripture and knowing what his mission is.

Marriage is one sign of the social nature of humans in which the “two shall become as one.” Another sign is the Eucharist, for as Paul says in Romans 12:5: “We, though many, are one body in Christ…” Fr. Gerald Darring wrote, “Marriage and Eucharist are signs of sharing lives and living (in unity).  The unity of humankind is shattered every day by the evil of injustice: racism, sexism, poverty, hunger, homelessness, war. We are constantly violating the fundamental principle: ‘Let no man separate what God has joined’.  God has joined us in a society of brothers and sisters because it is not good for us to be alone: let no one separate that society through injustice.”

Law will never unify us, but love will.  I said last week, that Jesus was always making the circle larger, always including people that were different, who had experiences unlike the others.  He did not make laws and rules to bring those people together, but taught them to love God and love their neighbors like themselves.  “Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.” (1Cor 13:13)

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What is an Inclusive Church?

We are an inclusive church. When we do not strive to be inclusive, we fail to be what we are called to be.  Our church was never intended to be a group of “cookie-cutter” people, all of the same race, socio-economic status, nationality, age, gender, or sexual orientation.  It was intended to be the church that Jesus, out of love, showed us how to be. Very deliberately and purposefully, Jesus called the people on the edges of society to be part of his mission.  Being inclusive is not being weak about our beliefs.  When we are inclusive, we know exactly what we believe, and why we believe it.  Here is an example of how one person saw an inclusive church:

 

Immigrant’s Apostles Creed

            I believe in Almighty God, who guided the people in exile and in exodus,
the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon,
the God of foreigners and immigrants.

I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean,
who was born away from his people and his home,
who fled his country with his parents when his life was in danger.

When he returned to his own country he suffered under the oppression of Pontius Pilate, the servant of a foreign power.
Jesus was persecuted, beaten, tortured, and unjustly condemned to death.
But on the third day Jesus rose from the dead,
not as a scorned foreigner but to offer us citizenship in God’s kingdom.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,
who speaks all languages, lives in all countries,
and reunites all races.

I believe that the Church is the secure home
for foreigners and for all believers.
I believe that the communion of saints begins
when we embrace all God’s people in all their diversity.
I believe in forgiveness, which makes us all equal before God,
and in reconciliation, which heals our brokenness.

I believe that in the Resurrection
God will unite us as one people
in which all are distinct and all are alike at the same time.
I believe in life eternal, in which no one will be foreigner
but all will be citizens of the kingdom
where God reigns forever and ever. Amen.

 

Attributed to Rev. Jose Luis Casal, Director of Presbyterian World Mission, himself an immigrant from Cuba.

Love and The Body & The Blood

20th Sunday Ordinary time; August 19, 2018

Proverbs 9:1-6; Ps 34:2-7; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Our Gospel reading today is likely one of the top ten hardest readings to preach on. Even the people Jesus was speaking to “quarreled” among themselves when He spoke about the living bread saying, “…the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”  You need to know that the word “quarreled” in Greek is a word for violent fighting, not just a mild spat.  These words have been the source of division among Christian communities always, a major fountain of violence during the Reformation, so contentious that people were tortured and killed over different views of the meaning of the Mass. In fact, 3 years ago when we came to these readings, I preached on the 2nd Reading from Ephesians instead of focusing on the Gospel.

Three weeks ago, Bishop Ron told you that John was written to deepen the faith of people who were already Christian believers. The Last Supper or the original “Mass” is found in Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and 1 Corinthians 11.  It makes sense that John would not see a reason to repeat that in his Gospel; but John did spend time and effort teaching about the Mass.

It also makes sense that John would present multiple teachings on the Mass. The first was the “Wisdom and Understanding” approach.  We have a sample of that from Proverbs for our first reading today.  Wisdom is portrayed as a woman (whole different homily) who prepares wine and food and sends out invitations over the city, inviting the simple and those lacking understanding to come to her table.  Our 2nd reading tells us to be wise, to be filled with the Spirit, and to gain understanding of the will of God.

Then there is the symbol of bread that ties into a long history of sacred bread in Jewish liturgy and practices in the temple, as well as in the scared Jewish writings. Unleavened bread and wine are major components of the Passover celebration.  Manna is a significant part of Exodus.  But keep in mind that it was an abomination for the Jews to eat human flesh and drink blood.  Blood was understood then as the substance of life, for without blood we die, and it was a substance of great mystery.  Any contact with blood required a ritual cleansing. All this helps us understand the image of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus to give us life.

So in the opening of today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” It seems a pretty direct reference to the crucifixion. Of course, the Temple ritual sacrifices called for the slaughter of animals.  Historians tell of blood running down the streets of Jerusalem during Passover, with the slaughter of hundreds of animals.  To make the scene even more vivid and realistic, Jesus uses a word for “eat” which is best translated as “gnaw or munch.” And how can anyone eat his flesh without him being slaughtered like an animal? Then, Jesus adds, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”  So after the slaughter comes the resurrection.

Jesus does not let this teaching slide by quickly. He goes on to insist that his flesh and blood have genuine value as food and drink.  Also, he adds the image of “remaining”.  Jesus tells us that coming to communion is a way to really be “into Jesus”, a way to remain with him always, the way to have life always. He explains how the bread at communion is not like the ordinary bread we eat, or even the heavenly manna which fed the Israelites as they escaped from Egypt.  Those other types of bread we eat, they only feed us for a day, and do not remain with us.  The bread Jesus gives us stays with us forever, and gives us eternal life.

That being said, we still have an elephant in the room. Catholics teach that when the bread and wine are consecrated by a priest, they become the true body and blood of Christ.  It is called transubstantiation (a change of the very substance of the bread and wine).  Christ then is present whole and entire in each crumb of the bread and drop of the wine. It is one of the mysteries of our faith, and requires a leap of faith, as our eyes do not see the change.  If there is any place in the Bible that says this is true, this reading is identified as that place.

I stand at this altar and I say those words. I have come to believe that altars such as this are very sacred places, and that by saying the words of the Mass, we do indeed enter a very holy moment.  I also recognize that not everyone experiences what I experience when I stand there.  I also know that it is not because of my holiness, but a gift of God.  So I do not pressure others to believe what I believe.  When I offer the consecrated bread and wine to people, I say that it is open to all who come in reverence; they must come respectfully and with dignity, and hopefully with a sense of awe.  My task and duty is to offer an opportunity to understand the ancient history of this sacrament, its basis in wisdom tradition, and the traditions and teachings of the Church which surround it.

But on Tuesday, as I was writing this homily, the Attorney General of PA announced that a Grand Jury had possession of internal documents from six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania showing that more than 300 “predator priests” have been credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 child victims, dating back to 1947.  Their report said that the numbers may be “in the thousands”, as records have been lost and people are still afraid to come forward.  Quoting from the report, “The men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades… priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals have mostly been protected….”  Once again, the Holy Spirit is grieved, as are we.

Jesus gave us a commandment to love one another. He also said in Matthew 18:6 , “… whoever ensnares one of these little ones who trust me, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the open sea.”  That is very harsh, and we should be quick to pray for the healing of those children, as well as forgiveness for those clergy, and that strong steps be taken to prevent this in the future.

My friends, it is right and good to understand our sacraments and continue to learn about them, expanding our faith. But I would best like to be identified as a Christian by the way I show love to others and the way I protect the vulnerable and innocent.  It makes sense to me that Jesus would want us to be his body and blood by the lives we live.

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.

Faith that will save us

14th Sunday ordinary time, 7-8-18.

Ezekiel 2:2-5; Ps 123:1-4; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6

We pick up today in the Gospel of Mark where we left off last week. Between last Sunday’s stories about the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe and the girl who was announced to be dead, and today’s story, Mark gives us only 1 sentence of transition, “Jesus departed from there and came to his native  place (Nazareth), accompanied by his disciples.”

This is typical of Mark’s Gospel. If you want an eloquently told tale, then read Luke.  If you want a story told with the speed of a tractor-trailer on the Interstate, read Mark.  In fact, the Gospel of Mark tends to be so fast moving and bare-bones straight to the point, it has been called “the Passion of Jesus with a long introduction.”

But this story we read today is unique in other ways. First, we get a very harsh, negative rant from people about why Jesus was not the big deal that everyone was making of him.  Oh sure, they had no phones or texting or internet, but they had heard all about the miracles and the healing and the preaching that was so astounding.  But they didn’t believe it. They didn’t believe Jesus was capable of such things.  And furthermore, they were offended by Jesus and thought he ought to be back in the carpenter shop where he had grown up and doing the trade Joseph had taught him, talking about the weather and what was for dinner tonight.

Now think for a minute. If you were Mark, and you wanted to prove Jesus was the “Son of God”, would you tell a story about people who didn’t believe him, and a place where “he was not able to perform any might deed”? There are people, now, who will tell you that the “miracle of the loaves and fishes” was not so much as miracle as it was that Jesus got the people to openly share what they had.

But here, openly and remarkably authentic, Mark writes about Jesus being a failure in his home town. That ought to be enough motivation for us to ask “Why?? What is going on here?”  And Mark, in his brief and pointed way gives us an answer, “(Jesus) was amazed at their lack of faith.”

Say that again? “Their lack of faith”?  That needs an explanation. So we need to back up a little, to last week’s readings, and hear again what Jesus has to say about healing miracles and “faith”.  The woman who had been sick for 12 years thinks, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.”  Jesus’ response to her: “Daughter, you faith has saved you.  Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.”  The people from the official’s house said, “Your daughter has died.”  Jesus responds: “Do not be afraid; just have faith.”

So I turn to my old friend, Mr. Webster, to check out what this word “faith” means. “Faith” is used as a label for organized religious groups, such as, “what faith are you – Christian, Jewish,” etc.  Or we say, “I have faith in him, he’s a good guy, you can trust him,” Or “keep the faith” meaning continue to share a common goal. But then I find this in my dictionary: “Belief and trust in God.”  So we know that Jesus wasn’t doing a series of “Magic Acts” , he was not a clever trickster who just woke up sleeping girls or knew that people were hiding their picnic baskets full of fish and bread.  This has to do with belief, trust, and God.

The Catechism is also helpful in times like this. It says that “Faith” is a personal act where a person has the free choice to respond to God.  God is revealed to each of us, and some of us respond.  Faith is an interaction between a person and Jesus.  A relationship develops, and is nurtured in trust and love.  We see the same thing in human relationships.  If we have faith in our spouse, if we learn that we can trust them, we grow in love with them, and if it a mutual act, then we begin to have faith that that person will continue to be there for us, that we can depend on them, and they will be faithful to us.  Likewise, Jesus offers himself to us, and we can choose to willingly receive him and build an ever deepening relationship with him.

Does this help to explain why Jesus told the woman that her faith had saved her? Her “faith” was not just a moment, but a lifetime commitment of belief which would surely sustain her for all time.  Jesus told the girl’s father, to “just have faith”.  Both these people had made great effort to come to Jesus, to find him, to press thru the crowd, to risk shame & ridicule; they both came believing that Jesus was the solution to their unsolvable problems, that Jesus was the answer to their questions.

If “faith” is your relationship with Jesus, then your faith is mutual, having your life and your very being entwined in an unconditional and active intimacy with Jesus.   Those are words we can seldom use in our society, “unconditional and active intimacy”,  so different from the loneliness and isolation that is so common.

The opposite, of course, is when we shut down and refuse to respond, when we do not listen, when we turn away or deny the relationship. For it is not only the heat of criticism that stops faith from growing, but the cold of indifference and casual ignorance that is so common in churches. We shrug, we tell ourselves faith doesn’t really matter, or is irrelevant, and faith and love and caring wither away.

This was why Jesus was such a dud in the “old home town.” He opened himself to them, he came to teach and to help and to heal, and they would have nothing to do with him, other than to criticize and demean.  They wanted to have him be small and inconsequential in their lives, be there to make a table or chair when they wanted one, but not “interfere” in their lives or be part of their lives all the time.  They wanted him just to be the guy who lived on the corner, not someone they cared about or made sure they had a chance to talk to every day.  They didn’t want to really know him, but wanted him to be waiting when they needed a favor, just the status quo.  There was nothing to build a relationship on.

So, how do we treat Jesus? Is Jesus inconvenient for us?  Are we interested in really knowing him?  Or do we just stop by church when we have the time, expecting him to do a little carpentry work for us?  Do we want to have a relationship of trust and love?  Have we read our Bible enough to know what we’re missing?  Do we understand the faith we profess or seek out ways to learn more?  Do we have faith of the kind that will save us?

Fullness of Life

13th Sunday Ordinary Time, 7-1-18

Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24; Psalm: 30:2-6, 11-13; 2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-15; Mark 5:21-43

Often I look for a theme word or idea that ties the readings together. It seemed relatively easy to find that unifying word today – the word is “life”.  Our first reading from the Book of Wisdom, written only about 100 years before Christ, would seem to use the idea of “life” very literally.  Our writer says, “God formed man to be imperishable…we were made in the image of God’s own nature”.   Now that sounds familiar, from Genesis 1: 26, that we are made in God’s image, after God’s likeness.  But it clearly doesn’t mean that we have share God’s nose or eye color.  The writer of Wisdom takes it to mean that we, like God, were meant to be eternal beings, not just to be a dot on the landscape for a moment in time.  Jesus told us the same thing in Luke 12:27 when he said, “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”  If God creates flowers of great beauty for only a day or two, how much more does God, who loves us so very deeply, create us to be eternal!  There are voices in our culture that tell us life is just hard and we have to plod along until it’s over, that life is cheap, and certain people are expendable, that lives of some are without value.  The author of Wisdom makes clear that those voices are absolutely wrong and come from darkness and evil.  Life is a precious gift of God.

Psalm 30 was written as a song of joy and thanksgiving to God for an escape from enemies. It was later used to celebrate the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BC after the Maccabean Revolt for Jewish independence.  Think of it as an ancient 4th of July-type song.  It is a celebration of life; first there was weeping when life and liberty were lost, and then came dancing for the joy of freedom.

But then we have the Gospel, where the concept of life becomes much broader. We find the stories of a dying girl and a desperate woman wrapped around each other.  We’ve seen these “sandwich stories”, or “stories within stories” in Mark before.  They are meant to work together to explain each other and to act as “surround sound”, with the message coming at us from multiple directions.  Jesus obviously knows a great deal about love.  He knows that love is powerful – so powerful it is stronger than death.  For Jesus himself is life – both life and light to us.  In Him there is no darkness. For God created light to end the darkness.

So what do the woman and the girl have in common? The woman has been dying a slow death.  She has died a social death – she has been shut out of the temple and separated from her community and social supports because the religious authorities declared her “unclean”. To this day, some Christian churches have continued to declare all women as unable to be priests – perhaps unwittingly following an ancient misunderstanding about women’s bodies.  Still, around the world women are blocked from leadership positions.

The woman in the story has also been financially dying as her money has all been spent on medical treatments that have not worked, and her hope has been dying as her health has deteriorated. Jesus, frankly, is a last-chance option, and it is not entirely clear, given her “fear” after she touches his clothes, if she understands who Jesus is.  But Jesus is very clear about who he is.  It is her faith, not magic or chance, he tells her, which saved her.  She is to live in God’s peace now; it is not that she just kept looking until she found the “right cure”, but that God has cured her.

The girl is dying a sudden death. She had not been ill long.  Her death was probably caused by a bacterial infection, or a virus, and nearly half of all children at that time died before they were 18.  There simply was little that could be done, and little or no time to try to help her.   To both the woman and the girl, Jesus gives a second chance at life – a full life, with hope and love and peace.

But why does Mark keep these stories alive for us, so long afterwards, and what do they have to do with us? Surely this is not about preventing every death or about every sick child being resurrected.  We know better.  Christians who do not understand Mark’s story have cruelly broken many people’s hearts and created great anguish and anger by insisting that prayers will save every life or cure every disease.  Meanwhile, every human still dies.

There are many people whom we love or work with or pass on the sidewalks, who have parts of their souls and their psyches dying. An estimated 23.5 million Americans are addicted to alcohol and drugs, about 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 12.  89% of them do not receive treatment – and the high cost and lack of availability of treatment are the primary reasons.  Add to those numbers the number of Americans who are born with disabilities, those seriously injured in automobile crashes and those who are suffering with chronic health issues and you begin to understand the real America.  And consider the numbers of people in 3rd world countries who have no access to heath care, those trapped in the middle of wars and those who are unwilling immigrants from other kinds of violence, and you have the beginnings of a realistic picture of the life of the majority of the people in our world.  Some of us live, for the most part, my friends, in a bubble.

We must remember the great efforts expended by both the woman and the girl’s father to seek healing. They did not sit at home and say, “Ain’t it awful!”   They acted in a brave and heroic way, in front of a huge crowd, and were willing to face shame and ridicule for their efforts. Why did their communities make it so hard?  Perhaps Mark would like us to consider that.

Perhaps healing comes best when there is grace – the love of God -freely demonstrated by believers, and community – when there is support and openness and inclusiveness.  Healing is a type of thing where if “you aren’t with us, you’re against us.”  People who need medical care need to access it at affordable rates, provided by well-trained professionals and volunteers who will offer transportation, moral support, gentleness and kindness.  People seldom heal themselves without good information, quality food, and encouragement.  Power to give life comes from grace and community, for the strength of community is greater than the strength of individuals.  The hems of our garments are the clothes that people are reaching for.

These stories in Mark are not just stories made up to enhance the image of Jesus. They are not just historical stories to take up space on a shelf.   They are stories about what God continues even now to do through faith – faith that Jesus did rise from the dead, and that death and hatred and prejudice and violence are no longer necessary in our world – and our actions and our behavior do make a difference.  When Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you” or “Do not be afraid, just have faith,” he is looking at us who call ourselves Christians.

When we feel those small parts of ourselves die when we are repeatedly disappointed by those we care about, or the sexual harassment we experience at work, or the inability to control our finances, or the covert prejudice we face, do we hesitate to take them to Jesus for healing, and to our community for support? Do we “put on a brave face” and bury our feelings so that our family and friends don’t know about our suffering?  How do we react when someone else tells us of their struggles?

Finally, the Greek word for healing (sozo) in Mark’s Gospel is the very same word which he also uses for what we call salvation. Salvation is forgiveness of our sins, a type of healing, which opens the way to God for us. There is a real and clear link between physical healing and spiritual healing.  It’s not science vs religion, but just two parts of the unity of life.  In other words, healing and a full life are offered to all in many difference ways.  Each of us can describe in our own unique way what “fullness of life” means to us.

This week, spend some time in prayer; tell Jesus the healing you need, from things you have done, or things you have failed to do, or things which have been done to you.  Make a plan to change one thing in your life, with God’s help, which will make your life – or the lives of those around you – fuller, richer, more meaningful.  Find another believer to walk this journey with you. Let this change grow in you, nurture it as it becomes more mature and natural to you, and find the joy which comes from reaching out to touch Jesus and find life.

 

4 gifts from John the Baptist

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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