Stiff Neck?

For June 2, 2019, Ascension Sunday

Read: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3,6-9; Ephesians 1: 17-23, Luke 24: 46-53

Have you ever had the experience of hearing an idea for the first time, and then suddenly hearing that idea again in different circumstances? I told you that Fr. Peter had given an excellent presentation at the General Assembly on Liberation Theology, a school of religious thought that aligns very well with the writings of St. Charles of Brazil, the founder of our own Catholic Apostolic Church.

Fr. Peter described two Church Fathers of the early Christian Church, and their theology in the years 300 – 400 AD. The first was St. John Chrysostom, who wrote this, “If a poor man comes to you asking for bread, there is no end of the complaints and reproaches and charges of idleness, you upbraid him, insult him, jeer at him.  You fail to realize that you too are idle and yet God grants you gifts!” He certainly was direct!

The second was St. Basil the Great. He wrote, “(The rich) seize what belongs to all, they claim it as their own on the basis of having got there first, whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest for those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor!”

The point is that the church in the early years strongly emphasized that we must be about the love that Jesus taught and practiced. Mercy, good works, generosity, love – those were the necessities of faith.  But by the Middle Ages, the Church began to struggle to maintain itself against growing secular power: Kings and Kingdoms.  In response, the Church teaching shifted more to personal salvation.  The mindset changed from relieving suffering of others to viewing suffering as a way to be free of sin in preparation for eternal life.  This new focus was somehow stretched to mean that other people’s suffering was good for them, somehow could be written off as deserved or even necessary, and not any of my business as I pressed to ensure my own passage thru the pearly gates.

The very next week after I heard Fr. Peter’s presentation, I managed to borrow The Time is Now, the newest book from Sister Joan Chittister. If you’ve had the experience of reading anything written by Sister Joan, a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania, you know hang on to your hat.  She could well be compared to a strong wind storm.

She begins her book by describing her early days in the convent. A leader would read a passage from a Gospel, and ask the listeners to see themselves in the scene.  So, Jesus debates with the Pharisees or raises the girl from the dead, and then turns and sees you.  He holds you in his gaze, and asks, “What will you do for these ones – simply stand there looking on?”  The purpose of this was to develop a spiritual practice, but it soon became apparent to Sister Joan that she was to immerse her own life in the life of Jesus.

Out of this would emerge a personal challenge to her own focus, her own behavior, her own life. She learned the teaching of the early Church Fathers which Fr. Peter quoted, and found embedded in them the primary spiritual obligation: to reshape a world that has lost its focus, its integrity, and its understanding of Jesus’ teachings and his purpose in our world.

Sister Joan says, “The question, ‘What will you do?’ is at the core of spiritual maturity, of spiritual commitment.” We may tell ourselves that by risking nothing, we can lose nothing.  Sister Joan says we like our religion served calmly, silently.  And we fail to realize that when we risk nothing, we actually risk everything.  When there is no room in the inn for hungry children, when people fleeing violence must live in tent cities, when there is a growing culture of poverty or paying workers pennies to create clothing which sells for hundreds of dollars, when affordable housing is replaced by mansions, and wars are being fought where the innocent are used as shields, what are we to do?  Stand there, looking on?

It is not a new question. Jesus rose from the dead.  He appeared to believers for 40 days after his crucifixion, he presented proof of his resurrection, and the Holy Spirit was given to the Church.  Jesus directed us to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.  And then he was taken from their sight.  And two heavenly beings appeared, asking, “Why are you standing there looking up at the sky?”

Some people want to focus on “he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.” It was written by someone who had no words to describe what happened.  We are savvy people, we understand special effects, our satellites and telescopes and probes reveal the secrets of the universe.   But surely, you have seen something in your lifetime that was impossible to describe using the words. For instance, I have never talked with a brand-new parent who had words to describe the experience of birth.  The Ascension is a moment of wonder, mystery if you must, unable to be articulated in a way that we have.

Likewise our various accounts of the Ascension don’t exactly match. Each author belonged to a different faith community, and had a different emphasis in their preaching. They used settings that matched the background of those they were teaching.  Any good teacher does that, making the lessons appropriate to the life and culture of the students.  But they all proclaimed the same message – Our Lord is Alive, is with God, and the Holy Spirit is within us. We say: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

So, now what will we do with this information? Do you want the risen Jesus to remain in the Bible story, where you can close the book, put it on the shelf and go on with life?

Do you want to leave the risen Jesus to the clergy, and let them carry the burden of faith? Do you want to leave the work of Jesus to the Social Service agencies, have Bill Gates fund it, have public safety keep the homeless off the streets?  Shall we let Mother Nature take care of the earth? Is the ending of Thrones or the newest superhero movie enough for you?

Or do you want to stop looking at the sky and invite people to church, to share your wealth of talent and experience and compassion with people who simply need some help?  Do you want to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the dying and visit those in prison? (Don’t blame me, those are Jesus’ ideas.) Do you want to get dignity by giving dignity, pride by nurturing pride, joy by sharing joy?  Do you want to give people a voice by speaking out? Do you want to make a difference and be a Christian, not just a consumer?

If what I see in the church today is accurate, I would guess that moving our focus from the Love for one another taught by Jesus to a focus on personal salvation wasn’t the answer to growth of secular power. We are here together in this place because of a Catholic Bishop who decided loving each other, especially the poor and powerless, was essential.  If Sister Joan is right, having taken her cue from the angels in the white garments, then standing and looking is the wrong answer.   There is no joy to be found there.   I say, “My neck is getting stiff looking up, let’s look around us, see the needs and opportunities, and get busy.”

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7 Sundays

3rd Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019

Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Psalm 30:2,-6, 11-13; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21 1:1-19

At the opening of today’s Gospel, Peter and 7 of the other apostles are still reeling from the shock of the crucifixion and are still not entirely sure just exactly what happened afterwards. When we lose someone very dear to us, we may also fear that we have no hope for the future. That is how they felt: hopeless, without a future, empty inside, lost.  So it doesn’t surprise us that the 8 men, like a bunch of mother-less boys, don’t know what to do.  They do what they always did before – they went fishing, maybe for something to eat, maybe make a little money, mostly, just for something to do, something they were used to, that brought back good memories, and something that didn’t demand their confused brains to work very hard.

But night turns into morning, and no fish had been sighted; nothing. A voice calls out an Aramaic word which means something like lads, or guys, a name for young men.  And the voice tells them to fish on the other of the boat.

Now isn’t that just like real life. We can be so close to success, to making sense of our lives, to achieving an important goal, and we never think of making a small adjustment that might bring success. I was an employment counselor for 13 years, and oversaw job training programs.  I saw people make foolish decisions, do things they knew would ruin their chance for finishing the training, when they were close to the end.   We all tend to have a habit of fishing out of just one side of the boat, to keep things from changing.  We continue to flounder because we keep doing the same thing that doesn’t work anymore.

We need the voice of Jesus in our lives to lead us to good alternatives. I can’t tell you how many times Jesus has offered me solutions to really hard situations – ideas I never would have considered, but ideas that were absolutely brilliant and successful yet at the same time simple.  John recognized Jesus by what he did – Jesus changed one small detail which made everything different.  That is how Jesus tends to move in our lives, not with fireworks, but a gentle nudge.

Jesus is on the beach with another charcoal fire. Do you remember the first charcoal fire we read about in John’s Gospel?  The first fire warmed Peter in Caiaphas’s courtyard when, as predicted, Peter denies Jesus three times. Today John tells us about this second charcoal fire, where Jesus invites Peter to seek forgiveness for his 3 denials by declaring his love three times. Each time Jesus asks Peter to act out that love by service: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” He then predicts that Peter’s service will take him where he does not want to go. Social justice ministry is important, but sometimes that ministry takes us where we might not want to go, we might work with people we don’t understand or even like, we will seeing suffering that is hard to witness and calls us to give more of ourselves than we had planned on. Serving Jesus means loving our enemies, like the Roman oppressors, like the narrow-minded Pharisees.  You know people today that you could call your enemies.  What Jesus asks is easy to say and very hard to do (or we would do it).

I am once again astounded by the way Jesus handles this reconciliation. I know of no one that would be so gentle, yet at the same time so firm.  A man I know has the most active prayer life I have ever encountered.  He tells me he has never experienced such gentleness as the gentleness of Jesus.  But, on the other hand, he when he tries to describe the power and strength of Jesus, he is at a loss for words, and just shakes his head, amazed.  I think that is the Jesus that this passage describes.  Jesus addresses Peter with 4 simple words “Do you love me?”  Peter offers his whole heart with his reply, “You know that I love you.”

Those words bring Peter to tears – and complete and lasting change. This is literally a point of life change for Peter.  He could have ended up taking his own life out of remorse, as Judas did.  Judas could have come to face Jesus and lived, but he didn’t.  Judas believed the lie that his sin was too great.  Surely his betrayal was a sin, but the real sin was to turn his back on Jesus and refuse to believe that Jesus has the power to forgive our sin. Do we have what it takes to forgive those who have hurt us?  Do we have what it takes to face our failings and ask for forgiveness? Do we understand that our sins, our failures, our moments of greed and self-absorption can lead us to a point of life change? The very worse mistakes in our lives can bring us blessings untold when we take them to Jesus.

Our 1st reading from Acts therefore has a totally transformed Peter, saying to the very same High Priest he was so very fearful of not long before, “We must obey God rather than man” and so bolding finding joy in suffering threats and dishonor for being true to Jesus.  He not only returns to be an apostle, a follower of Jesus, but moves ahead, and moves to the “other side of the boat” – leadership.  One side of the boat there was a gentle call; moving to the other side of the boat, there was the power to create a multitude of fish where there were none before.  So Peter moves on to publicly witnesses to the Risen Christ, a true fisher of mankind.

After Easter, we can return to the world we were used to, seeming unchanged.  Maybe that’s why we have 7 Sundays of Easter Season.  It gives us time to face a living, resurrected Jesus, and a world where life does triumph over death.  It gives us time to hear a call from the beach, to witness the miracle of Jesus’ power.  It gives us time to move to the other side of the boat and recognize Jesus for who he is. It gives us time to draw near to Jesus at the charcoal fire, sinners as we are, and be given the gifts of reconciliation and forgiveness.  There we can proclaim a new level of love and desire to take the love given to us to all the people who are lost sheep in this world.  My friends, the sheep are waiting!

Where is God’s “House”?

The Holy Family, 12-30-18

1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28, Ps 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10, 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24, Luke 2:41-52

Our readings start with 1st Samuel, and the story of the prophet Samuel as a child. His mother had not been able to have a child, so she had gone to the Temple and prayed, telling God she would bring the child back to the Temple for a lifetime of service there. The Hebrew phrases it more like she had borrowed the child, and them returned him to God. In our terms, Samuel became an “adopted” child of God, a child who grew up in God’s “house”. It sets the stage for the Gospel nicely in terms of the importance of the Temple as a place representing God’s “Home” and presence among us, and the way we connect deeply with God for a lifetime.

Many people have translated today’s Psalm into modern English. Leslie Brandt starts it: “O God, the center of your will is truly the place of fulfillment. I long incessantly for the peace and security of walking with you. You are the only purpose and meaning for my life. Those who discover and follow you are forever blessed.”

Nan Merrill finishes the Psalm this way: “Blessed are they who put their strength in you, who choose to share the joy and sorrows of the world. They do not give way to fear or doubt; their lives are quickened by Divine Light and Power; they dwell within the peace of the Most High, They go from strength to strength and live with integrity.”

I know of no one who can live this way solely because of their own intellect or self-determination. Life is too complex to live without love, too full of stumbling blocks to be without God’s strength, too short to be without hope and faith.

Our second reading from 1st letter of St. John also used to prepare us for the Gospel. John writes that we are “children of God”. It does not mention the Temple. The Temple was probably destroyed by the Romans before this was written, but it was definitively written after Pentecost. John writes somewhat differently about what it is to live in God’s “house”.

He says: God’s commandment is that “(1) we should believe in… his Son, Jesus Christ, and (2) love one another as he commanded us.” So John concludes that “Those who keep (God’s) commandments remain in God, and the way we know that God remains in us, is from the (Holy) Spirit God gave us.” So, God’s dwelling is no longer understood as a building where we go to be with God. Instead, God is within us – which is a huge step when you think about it. But it makes sense, since we were created “in God’s image”, and God proclaimed us “good”, as Fr. Peter talked about last week.

If we are the dwelling place of God – “God’s House” – what is an appropriate and sensible way to run our lives? When God’s dwelling was a building, it was easy to understand there were certain ways to act and behave in God’s house. Ever since God had Moses create a Tent which housed the Ark of the Covenant, great care was taken to use the best of building materials, precious metals, and furniture and lamp stands of certain shapes. Desecrating the Temple was to show contempt or be irreverent. Being abusive, profane, sacrilegious, or disrespectful in the Temple was something that only mortal enemies did after every-able bodied person had given their lives to prevent it.

But my question was this: If God dwells in us, if we are God’s house, what are our responsibilities? John’s answer is straightforward: “to believe” and “to love.” We can trust God; there is no nanosecond of time when God does not love us; God never turns away from us. God is never out of town, or asleep or glued to a screen. Too many people have treated God like “Santa, Baby”- a demanding relationship where we stop believing in God if the blue convertible, the ring, the condo and the checks weren’t delivered by Christmas.

For the Gospel, we must return to the 3-level way of reading. Level 1 is the story line – most of us have heard this story before. Level 2 is the deeper meaning and symbolism. Level 3 is how to make use of it in our lives.

Finding deeper meaning may include asking: How did Mary and Joseph look for Jesus? They looked first among friends and family.  They looked to those who they knew well, they trusted, and who shared their faith and values.  That’s why we have God parents, and faith communities – because we need to be surrounded by people of faith.  But Jesus was not there.

They returned to the Temple, which they saw as the House of God, the center of faith and truth, where they went to be devout and faithful people of God, and observe the time-honored customs of worship.  They diligently conducted an intense search for a child they loved, and who was precious to them.  They would not leave until they found him, the child Jesus was all they thought about. They looked for their son in every corner of the Temple, not just in the open courts.  They even went to the special places where the teachers, the wise ones and the scholars met, those who devoted their lives to the study and practice of their faith, and they found him there, to their astonishment.

How do we use the passage we read to find Jesus in our own lives? In the first paragraph of Luke’s Gospel, he writes that he has closely studied the life of Jesus “from the beginning…from eyewitnesses and ministers of the word…so that (we) may know the truth…”  The Bible, then, is a good place to start the search for Jesus.

The community of faith often searches for Jesus together, sharing what their experiences have taught them. But that is not enough. Our search must be diligent and intense, including regular daily prayer and study time, which may mean re-working your daily schedule. We choose to be obedient to God and grow in wisdom.  Becoming an active participant in the worship of the faith community is important. This is the pattern of faithful Christian living that brings us to fullness of life. Continuing the search persistently is absolutely necessary.  It must continue until our last day.

So these readings are not just story lines from long ago, not just poems about a God that lives in a place far away. Rather, they point us toward a way of life – the Christian Life, a life of community of belief, and a pattern of love.  They are about the way we are to live going forward from the manger where the child was born, the God who created everything we know, who came to earth to live with us and live as one of us, and live within us.

The Greatest Travelogue Ever!!

1st Sunday of Advent

Dec. 4, 2018, Beginning of liturical year C

This year I thought we would take a little different approach to Advent. From the 1st Sunday of Advent, today, thru the Christmas season, we will highlight each week specific characters or events in the Christmas story.  The goals are to make parts of the story come to life a little more, to better see the intent of the Gospel writers, and discover deeper meaning.

This week we start with the trip that Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  We start with a reminder that the Roman Empire occupied the Holy Lands at that time.  A call for a census could not be ignored.  This story begins in a time and place of bondage, of fear, and oppression.  It was a time that religion demanded that people make blood offerings to appease God.

Let us follow the journey of Mary and Joseph to see what it tells us. We start in the hill country of Nazareth, about ¾ the way up a map of Biblical Palestine.  They have two choices to get to Bethlehem.  The is to travel east and cross the Jordan River, then follow the heavily traveled caravan road south, cross back at Jericho, and climb the steep grade to Jerusalem, and go south to Bethlehem.  This was the longer of the 2 routes, and the busiest.  The 2nd route is an ancient road called the “Way of the Patriarchs”.  It is less traveled, shorter (20+miles), but you must pass through Samaria. It is about 95 miles, ten days on foot; for us, a drive of 2 ¼ hours.

You remember the prejudice against the Samaritans. They were considered “unclean” and even “dangerous”.  But you also remember the parable of the “Good Samaritan” and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, in Sychar.  It is interesting to consider that Jesus used a Samaritan to teach the command to love our neighbors; he may have first learned that love from Mary and Joseph.

But much of what is called the “West Bank” today was Samaria in the day of Jesus; the Palestinians there now are the “Samaritans” of our day.  Many tours have stopped going there because of the “danger.” We don’t know for fact that Mary and Joseph took this 2nd road, but Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor and author of “The Journey”, and noted archaeologist Avner Goren agree that this road makes sense.

As Mary and Joseph traveled south out of Nazareth, they traveled around beautiful Mount Tabor, mentioned in the Psalms, an ancient site of worship, and said to be the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Then they moved into the plain of the Jezreel Valley, which is now the most fertile farmland in Israel.  There were hundreds of olives trees there then, and trees still remain that are believed to be from that time.  Our anointing rites are based in the use of sacred oils, olive oils.

The Jezreel Valley was the site many ancient battles, including the battle between King Saul and the Philistines (think David and Goliath) , where evil Queen Jezebel killed a man to get his vineyards, Gideon defeated the Midianites, and prophesized to be the site of the final battle in the end times (Armageddon/ in Megiddo).

So Mary and Joseph have begun a trip of Biblical history covering a period of some 16 centuries. Abraham came from the north, from Haran, thru Shechem, Beth El, and down to Hebron.  The tombs of Abraham and Sarah are in Beer-sheva.  Jacob, their grandson, was given land in Samaria, and Jacob’s well is the Well in Sychar, where the “Woman” met Jesus. No doubt Mary and Joseph made camp near that well.   Jacob’s son Joseph was buried near Shechem also.  As they moved south, they went through Shiloh, where Joshua set up the tent of the Ark of the Covenant after entering the Promised Land.  This is where Samuel, Elijah and Elisha were prophets.

The Assyrian and Babylonian armies entered Israel on this road – and left on it taking the people as exiles and all the gold and silver from the Temple.  It is also how the exiles re-entered their homeland some 40 years later, to rebuild their nation.  It is amazing to think that God walked with those exiles as they returned, and now, almost 550 years later, Mary carries a child who is called the Prince of Peace over this same route.  It feels like a point of closure to thousands of years of history.

Luke begins his Gospel this way: “Inasmuch as many have… set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us… it seemed good to me also, having had a perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account,… that you might know the certainty of those things…” (Luke 1:1;3-4)  

There certainly are those who dismiss Luke’s account of Mary and Joseph’s journey as a fictional story. But we have historical sources concerning the Governor Quirinius, like the Roman historian, Tacitus (Annals 3.48) and the Jewish/Roman historian, Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 18.1-2). New Testament historian Jack Finegan says, “Many actual census returns have been found, and they use the very same word (ἀπογράφω) which Luke 2:2 uses for the “enrollment.” (From web site: Cross examined. Org.) So, on the factual level, it is entirely possible it did happen.

But all of the Gospels should be read on three levels – the simple reading of the event itself, the meaning intended by the author, and the application to our lives. The simple meaning (the storyline): In extraordinary love, how God came to earth as a fragile and vulnerable baby, in humility, meager circumstances, and with all the normal inconveniences of life.

What about the intent of Luke’s story?  Luke is certainly placing Jesus in the spotlight of salvation history. Jesus is the Messiah, the Promised One, and his entry into the world is straight down the main aisle of the Cathedral of what is the “Holy Land”, as if he is on the last, most awaited and most important float in the parade of all parades. All the main characters of the ancient faith line the side of the road, waiting for hundreds of years just to have a glimpse of him, to be able to say, “I was there that day.” Luke has taken the story from the very beginning, so that you might know, even before you read about the teaching, the miracles, the rising from the dead, that Jesus was the Son of God.

And there is where we come in. Have you ever sat down and read Luke? I mean all of it, the 24 chapters.   It would take you 3 weeks if you read a little each day. It is one of the most documented, literary, and polished Gospels. You have just about (coincidentally) that much time before Christmas. Stop! Picture the scenes! Think about the message! You will find the Holy Spirit there, waiting for you, waiting to stir your heart. Warning: it will make 1 hour on Sunday too little for you. It will make you want more. It will take your “comfortable ignorance” as one Catholic put it, and turn it into thirst and hunger. When that happens, I will tell you about the sequel to Luke’s story.

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)

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.