Blessed or Not?

6th Week Ordinary Time, Febuary 2-17-2019

Jeremiah 17:5-8; Psalm 1: 1-6;  1 Corthinthians 15: 12, 16-20; Luke 6: 17, 20-20

Jeremiah was a prophet in the early 500’s BC. Even before that, the beatitude was a standard format of Jewish teachers and prophets.  Today we read beatitudes from both Jeremiah and Psalm 1, which compare the person who delights in God to the wicked.  They say what is wise or foolish, in vivid and concrete terms.

Jeremiah says those who are blessed (happy) trust and hope in God. They are like a tree beside the water.  This is a symbol used in our Psalm and throughout the Old Testament. Despite the heat and drought, the tree does not go into survival mode, because the water is enough to give it strength to flourish as well as support others with food. This describes people who flourish, do good works (fruit), and who have connected to sources of support, encouragement, and strength.  The beatitudes describe the lives of Godly people vs. those who live only for themselves.

St Paul picks up the theme of the difference of those who love God and those who don’t believe. In our reading today, Paul is addressing questions about the truth of the resurrection of Christ.  He says if all we have is this life on earth, we are the most pitiable people of all- more pitiable than a barren bush in salty soil.  But, Christ is alive, the first to be raised from the dead, and we will follow him.  Paul would say that we are the tree and Christ is the water, always there beside us.

But now, we get to the fun part, the Gospel. Jesus went to the mountain to pray, and spent the entire night in prayer.  In the morning, he calls his followers around him and selects 12 to be the apostles.  But the Word was out, he had been spotted, and a very large crowd, “a great multitude,” Luke says, had gathered on the plain below the mountain, people from Judea, Jerusalem, the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  They came to see him for themselves, to touch him in hopes of healing, and to hear him teach.

This is not the way Matthew described the scene. Matthew had Christ high on the hill, to remind us of Moses.  Luke describes Jesus as down with the crowd, accessible, touchable. The two Gospels even quote Jesus differently.  Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”   It takes on a more spiritual, theological tone, loftier, if you will.

Luke writes, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”  It is more literal, more concrete, more about life status, circumstances, the trials and demands of living, more “down to earth”.

Which one is right? They both are.  They both have a message for us.  There is no reason to try to fit them in the same box.  That is one gift of having four different Gospels.  Each writer tells the story differently to meet the needs of different groups and situations in different places and times.  They all perfectly agree that Christ came to teach us how to live, to love God and one another, to forgive our sins; Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.

So, what is Luke’s message? One of my favorite homilists, Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, describes beatitudes as, “short, two-part blessings.” Like our Psalm says: “Blessed is one who delights in the law of the Lord, whatever he does, prospers.”  But Jesus, like Jesus so often does, changes it up.  He blesses the poor, the hungry, and the people on the fringe!

In that day, being obese was a blessing, making it obvious to everyone that you had more than enough food. Being wealthy was considered a blessing by the Lord.  Jesus seems to reverse these.  Being a target for insults- well, that hasn’t changed so much, then & now, it still means you take your faith seriously, you fail to “go with the flow,” or that you don’t lower your morals to reflect whatever you see on stage, screen and advertisement.

At any rate, when the people heard Jesus’ beatitudes, they were stunned! aghast! Well, the rich, the well-fed and the popular were stunned.  They had become accustomed to rewards and honors, to having more than enough, considered it their due.  It’s an easy trap to fall into when you have no regular, personal interface with the poor.  Blaming the poor and hungry for their own plight was an easy way to stifle any guilt they might feel. They had set aside anything in their scriptures about loving neighbors. But now they must consider that they were spending their due of surplus and opulence, they were wasting their lives without thought to the future, and their “goodness” was as false as the false prophets. They have been found out and much too soon will experience emptiness and grief. When you are on top, there is no where to go but down.  Fame, food, fortune, they are all fleeting.

But what you thought about Jesus’ beatitudes was different, depending who you were. Righteous or not, most people work their whole lives hoping to achieve a pleasant life, with plenty, with a sense of pride. If you were poor, hungry, and insulted, then Jesus brought a startling surprise.  Jesus knew your worth.  Jesus was saying he understood if you felt like life was a terrible economic and social “jail.” BUT it was not your fault. The cell door is open. You will be an insider in God’s kingdom, you will laugh and eat, you will be honored and rewarded; you will rejoice and leap for joy.  Things will not forever remain as they are.

Jesus routinely gave clear commands. When he told us to love a Samaritan whom we had never met before, and pay for his needs out of our own pockets as quickly as we would for the guy next door that we really like, clearly he was giving us advice, even directing us to act. Jesus here is not even offering any judgment on our lack of social justice.  He is not asking us to do anything.  He’s simply offering a mirror to look into, to recognize if our feet are on the ground and our values are realistic.  Jesus in fact, offers a blessing to us all, at the bottom of the social scale or at the top.  No one stays at the top forever. In an hour, every material thing you own can be gone in a fire, your reputation can be smeared, your spouse can clear out the bank accounts and disappear.  It is indeed a blessing to be taught not to become too dependent on your social status or your “stuff”.

On the other hand, it is also a blessing to believe that you have value, a value which remains constant if you are in rags or a designer ball gown with a diamond tiara. It is worth getting up again tomorrow and doing your best, for tomorrow is always a new day when you can make a difference.  I believe that hope does, in fact, spring eternal, and that there are greater rewards in life than having filet mignon and champagne for dinner.   Some people find more joy in sitting vigil with a dying person or teaching a child to read and eating peanut butter out of the jar.

We are not fully in charge of much of anything, but, as Rev. Taylor concluded, “Blessed are you who loose(n ) your grip on the way things are, for God shall lead you in the way things shall be.” I agree, and I think St. Luke also was telling us to relax our grip on things a little and seek to God a little harder.

 

 

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Pray for Joy

3rd Sunday of Advent 12-16-2018

Zephaniah 3: 14-18a, Isaiah 12: 2-6, Philippians 4: 4-7, Luke 3: 10-16, year C

Today’s readings work together unusually well to give us reasons to experience Joy. We start with one of the Minor Prophets, Zephaniah.  The book is only 3 chapters long, and most of it is dire warnings of disaster:  “Woe to you”, it says, “who have turned away from God; a day of wrath, of distress, anguish, ruin and darkness is near.”  But we read from the very end of the book, when God forgives the people for their disobedience.  God’s presence returns to them and God rejoices over the people, God sings joyfully because of his people. God saves them from their enemies and makes them famous among the nations for their good fortune. That’s interesting, isn’t it?  Generally it’s the people who sing joyfully about God!

Speaking of unusual, our Psalm today is actually from the very end of the first section of the book of Isaiah.  The Assyrians have destroyed much of Israel, and all of King David’s descendents appear to be dead.  But Isaiah writes of the “shoot from the stump of Jesse”.   Jesse was the father of King David, and one descendent is eventually found alive.  So Isaiah gives us the prophecy of the Messiah.  Our reading today is parts of two songs of praise for the promise of the Messiah and that God has preserved the future of Israel.  “My strength and my courage is the Lord, and (God) has been my savior…Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously.” Coincidentally, these songs of praise echo the song of Moses’ sister Miriam, as the Israelites escape from Egypt, “The Lord is my strength and my song, for he has triumphed gloriously.” (Ex15:1-2) This time the people do sing joyfully about God.

Our 2nd reading likewise is a song of joy from the end of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  He writes from prison, awaiting execution.  But Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  The Lord is near.”  So, all three of these readings tell us that at the end of painful, difficult times, God makes joy out of fear and sorrow.

In our Gospel, the pattern changes slightly. We read from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, signaling something new is happening.  John the Baptist has baptized people in the River Jordan, and God has forgiven their sins.  The people have experienced a real change of heart, and are anxious to change their ways.  They ask “What should we do!?”  John tells them to share their clothing, share their food.  He tells the tax collectors not to over charge people and tells the soldiers not to falsely accuse the innocent or extort money from them.  John the Baptist ties all this up neatly by saying that the Messiah is coming.

So, we have an encouraging message, filled with forgiveness, the good news of a bright future, and lots of singing and joy. But, what do we do with it?  Well, I promised you to look at the nativity story during Advent in some new ways, and I think our readings today lead us to the characters of the Angels and the Shepherds.

The shepherds had little to rejoice about. For the most part, they were uneducated, poor men who had a dangerous job of fighting off large predatory animals who might kill the sheep.  They worked 24/7 shifts, outside, and slept on the ground.  Temperatures near freezing are common in Jerusalem this time of year.  A boy scout might find that fun, but I wouldn’t. Shepherds had all the fun of modern-day garbage collectors, very low social status, and a distinctively bad smell clung to them.  They bring a very humble and “earthy” aroma to the Nativity Scene.

Luke tells us that an angel of the Lord appeared to- of all people- them. If you read scripture carefully, you find most angels appear not as winged creatures, but as strangers, which is why Luke tells us the shepherds were “filled with fear”.  Can anyone here tell me how many times we find the expression “Be not afraid” in all its various forms in the Bible?  Well, this is one of the 365 times.  Then we hear those words of joy: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people (even shepherds): to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord” (2:10-11).  Then a “host” or “army” (the idea is so many you can’t count) of angels sing Glory to God.

I wonder how long it took for those shepherds to breath normally again. But it didn’t take them long to decide what to do.  Luke makes it sound like immediately they agreed to go to Bethlehem and see for themselves what had happened.  And they didn’t have to think about who to tell or what to say.  Once they had seen the infant in the manger, they “made know” the saying which had been told them.  That means they told everybody.   They “returned (to the fields), glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen…” They, like the people baptized by John, were changed.

So here is the pattern. Life is hard, daily living is difficult.  Then God appears; in some way we see the hand of God in our lives, or we hear God’s words, and something shifts within us, and joy appears.  The joy is real, and stirs us to some action, and things in our lives change.  The change is clear to people around us, for our behaviors change and our thinking is altered.  In a moment of despair, I once cried out loud to God, “I don’t even know what to pray for!” And the response came back to me, “Pray for Joy.”  So today, I say to you all, “Pray for Joy”.  You will find God when you find joy, for God is the source of real rejoicing.

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)

Choices and Decisions

21st Sunday Ordinary time 8-26-18;

Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ps 34:2-3, 16-21 Ephesians 5:2a, 25-32; John 6:60-69

We need to take the readings in order today because they work nicely together to make a particular point about choices that we face.  For a Bible scholar, Joshua 24 is highly important in the history of Israelite traditions. It preserves remnants of an ancient liturgy for the renewal of the covenant.  Joshua led the tribes of Israel into the Promised Land after the death of Moses.  He wanted to have the people united by worshiping a single God.  Joshua calls all the people and leaders together, and he puts before them the question of who that God will be.  Will it be one of the idol-Gods that the neighboring tribes worship?  Joshua makes clear that he and his family will worship the Lord.  And the people also vow to worship the Lord, for the Lord was the one who freed them from slavery.  They have seen the great miracles the Lord did to protect them and feed them. The Lord was their God and they were the Lord’s people.

The reading from Ephesians is also about a choice. Because of cultural misunderstandings, and a very questionable translation of very complex Greek grammar, this passage has been inappropriately used to twist the love of Christ for the Church into an invalid excuse to claim that St. Paul is demanding that wives be “subordinate” to their husbands.  As the passage was read today is closer to the real meaning.  It starts by saying that Christ chose to come to earth because he was deeply in love with us, a love which far exceeds anything else we experience in this life.  You know, of course, that the word “Church” as used here is not a religious institution created by humans.  Rather, it means all of the people who believe in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and who strive to follow Christ’s life of love.  Through Christ’s gift of love, we are presented to God in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish.  We are to model that relationship in our love of each other, particularly our spouse, but we are to commit to love within a marriage with that level of depth and intensity.  Paul is not talking about convenience or hormones, but choice.  Once again, the covenant agreement that the Israelites made with the Lord is the same image as marriage vows between spouses.

Now we are ready to look at a choice to be made between Jesus and the people he is teaching. A reminder – anyone could or can be a disciple of Jesus.  The disciples of Jesus were and are a very large group of people who want to live the life he teaches.  The Twelve Apostles are a small group who were selected by Jesus to be with him through his entire ministry on earth.

It’s best to go thru this Gospel reading closely to see what is happening. When we left off last week, Jesus had just said, “The one who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him…” Not surprisingly, many of the disciples respond, “This saying is harsh; this sort of talk is hard to take.”   The sense of the Greek is that what Jesus said was somewhere between fantasy and offensive. They hear him say it, but they cannot accept it.   Jesus says, “Does it shock you/ scandalize you, or does it shake your faith?”

Have you ever found yourself in that position, where something shook your faith? I knew an Independent Catholic priest whose young adult son died of cancer. His father was so shocked that he walked out of his church and never returned. He felt certain that prayers would save his son, that he would be healed. He was so overcome by his loss that he walked away from his faith. The idea of disciples walking away from Jesus because of something harsh or scandalizing is not just an event in the Bible; it is something that happens now, too.

So then Jesus proposes a question. “What if you were to see him ascending to heaven?” Of course, John’s Gospel was written after the ascension of Jesus, so this question makes perfect sense to the readers. Back in verse 42, the crowd had already protested when Jesus had said he had come from heaven (“don’t we know his father and his mother?”) But this crowd couldn’t imagine such a thing.   He continues, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless.” Flesh is like flowers that wither and fade, worth no more than to be thrown in the fire.

You are probably thinking, but – Jesus had just said in verse 52 that …”my flesh is true food…the one who feeds on my flesh …remains in me and I in him.” Perhaps you also noticed in the first two readings in our series from John, Jesus talked the “crowd”. For the last two weeks, Jesus has been talking to “the Jews” and now Jesus is talking to his “disciples.” We simply do not know how or when or why or who made these changes. Some people find the seeming inconsistencies in Scripture difficult, or scandalizing. One theory is that later editors of the Scriptures have made changes or added teachings to make the reading reflect the changes that happened as the understanding of theologians became clearer and more unified among the churches. As archeology and scholarship advances, we come to different conclusions about the early church. Our knowledge of the way words were used and our understanding of the culture of Jesus’ day have grown. We have the guidelines of the Bible and Tradition to help us get through these changes with our faith intact and even enriched. And the Holy Spirit is there to translate the words of Jesus to us in a true and helpful way. We have been given the Spirit that we might have a fuller life, more abundant truth, and the Spirit’s intercession with God. As Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you are both Spirit and life…”

At the time John wrote this Gospel, there were heresies that taught that Jesus was not divine, but only a prophet or wise man. That is why Jesus is described here as all-knowing, having divine knowledge of who will believe in Jesus’ teachings, as illustrated by the comment that “Jesus knew from the beginning who would not believe in him.” In no way does this suggest that people lack the full capacity of free choice and or that they cannot change.

Again, a note about culture: in the Mediterranean world, allegiance between each apostle of a group and its leader was strong. The leader recruited each apostle personally and individually. So Peter answers Jesus’ question about the apostles leaving. Peter’s response translated into Mediterranean cultural values is: we have made a commitment to you, no matter what (“we have believed”). I think John is hoping that we will recognize Peter as the leader of the apostles after Jesus’ ascension, and that we will be strengthened in difficult times by his response. Peter gives 3 reasons not to leave the faith in the face of crisis. One, there is no alternative to the One true God. Two, Jesus has given us the words of eternal life. His teaching not only has wisdom, but Jesus has opened the way to eternity. Lastly, Peter has been convinced by what he has seen and heard; that Jesus is the long-awaited “Holy One”.

Even, or maybe especially, when life is hard, the way seems dark, and we struggle, we must continue in the faith, stay in the Word of God, and cling to the Holy Spirit. That is the decision Peter made, along with the other apostles, and the choice that John is urging us to make, too.

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.

“Do This”

Sunday of the Body and Blood of Christ 6-3-18

Exodus 24:3-8; Psalm 116:12-18;Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-26

 

In the largest sense of human history, the Solemnity we celebrate today is the story of God’s relationship with all of creation; an intimate relationship of The Creator with the creation. Without the soil and the sun and the rain, the plants do not grow, and there is no food.  Without food, there are no animals.  Without God, nothing exists.  It is a good day to pause and remember our interrelationship and the necessary balances God established in creation to sustain life.

But meditating on the largest sense of human history can make us feel tiny, and we can feel too tiny to think about the enormity of it all. So, perhaps it is well to focus on the small parts of creation at a level where we can better grasp ideas that seem to impact our lives more personally.

Our reading from Exodus is about Moses sprinkling the blood of animals which have been sacrificed as peace offerings to God. Moses sprinkles the blood on the altar, as our rituals might have us incense the altar.   Then there is a reading of the covenant with God, and the people renew their vows to be God’s People and obey the commandments God has given them, just we renew our baptismal promises on Easter.

Then Moses sprinkles blood on the people, just as we sprinkle the water of baptism. But there is another side to this idea.  Our Eucharist speaks of “the cup of my blood”, the blood of Jesus which is shed for all so that sins are forgiven.  Today we have dozens of laundry products specially designed to remove stains.  Blood and wine are always first on the list of difficult stains to remove.   It is a startling idea that the blood of Jesus should not stain us and ruin us, but instead washes us clean of sin, removes all guilt and eliminates the need for punishment, allowing us to live eternally with God.

Our Psalm speaks of the “cup of salvation”. This Psalm could have been written by a contemporary Christian poet.  We take up the communion cup of salvation, calling on the name of the Lord, who has freed us from evil, selfishness and sin.  We remember our vows to God.  In order to give thanks to God, we must sacrifice our overinflated egos and all our “dead works”, as our 2nd reading calls our behaviors such as attempting to reduce God to an hour on Sunday.

So, like the early Christians, we experience the Body and Blood of Christ in the Mass as a sacrament, meaning an effective sign of grace, which works to give us divine life through the Holy Spirit. How did that look just after the first Pentecost? Well, in Acts 2:42 we find that (Christians) “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  The identity of Christians, then, was formed in unity, unity in belief and charity, both of which were founded in Eucharist, centered in thanksgiving for the gifts of Christ’s body and blood.

Some twenty years after Pentecost, The Church in Antioch left us a manual of liturgical prayers which we call the “Didache”, Greek for teaching.  In about the year 100, Pope Clement wrote a letter to the church at Corinth, saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might!” Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the church to “Confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”  In about the 150’s Justin Martyr wrote a detailed description of the Mass as it was celebrated in Rome.  We have historical evidence of the Mass in letters & prayers.

What was the impact of this Mass on the early church? The church had a growth rate estimated at 40% per decade, and by the middle of the 4th century, there were 33 million Christians in an Empire of 60 million people.  The Church Fathers quoted Malachi 1:11, “From the rising of the sun to its setting, my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, with a pure offering” –  as to say that always and everywhere in the Empire, the Mass was offered.

By then the Mass was called, “the Breaking of the Bread”, “the (once-for-all) Sacrifice”, “the Liturgy”, “the Mysteries”, “the Table of the Lord”, “the Lord’s Supper”, “the Altar”, and “the Communion.” But “the Eucharist” won out, because it was the Greek word for giving thanks, and Mark 14:23, Matthew 26:27, Luke 22:17, and 1 Corinthians 11:24 all used that word. Although great care was taken to keep the liturgy within Christian tradition, the spread of the Gospel from place to place included new and local ways to express worship, but the Words of Institution as found in 1 Corinthians 11 were kept intact. (“On the night when he was betrayed, he took bread and when he had given thanks; he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me…” Likewise the cup..)

We keep these words because Jesus commanded us to do so at a most solemn moment anticipating his death. St. Paul emphasized that this action is at the center of the church.  The cup “is the new covenant in my blood.”  Thus, all the subsequent generations have meticulously preserved the Lord’s words and actions as precious and divine.  The many ways that the Christian liturgy shares the prayers of our Jewish brothers and sisters is a fascinating study all by itself.

For early Christians, Mass was the meeting of heaven and earth. But the Mass was also preached as the unifying power of the church.  “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1Cor 10:17).  Ignatius wrote, “For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to show forth the unity of His blood.”  Great reverence and care were taken with the elements, which were regarded as more precious than gold or jewels.  Likewise, clergy were to give careful attention to the worlds of the liturgy, and great emphasis was placed on John 6:51, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, they will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Finally, the disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Christ when he opened the Scriptures for them, but rather in the breaking of the bread. In the same way, many millions of people have come to know Jesus after he ascended to heaven.  It reminds me of a quote from Pope Benedict XVI – “Evangelization is…the opening of the heart…(we are) agents of the Holy Spirit helping people have a profound experience of Jesus’ love…a love that opens them to the Word of God and the sacraments…”

We have here a sacrament of depth beyond our imaging, a sacrament which has roots in the earliest moments of creation. We have a liturgy for this sacrament which opens the hearts of people to God with the same power that it did centuries ago.  We have words and actions which we share with those who have gone before us and which we are responsible for passing on to those who come after us.  May the Holy Spirit lead us in this journey, may you find the fullness of God’s mercy and grace, and may Jesus remain in you as you partake from his table.

The Trinity Today – in Action

Holy Trinity Sunday, 5-27-18

Deuteronomy 4:32-40, Psalm 33, Romans 8:14-17, Matthew 28: 16-20

 

We’ll start with a little background for our first reading. Josiah (Joe-zi-ah) became king of Israel about 600 years before Christ.  He took the throne when he was only 8 years old, after a series of wicked kings who had turned their backs on God. But Josiah led the people back to worshiping God.  The Temple in Jerusalem had been allowed to fall into disrepair, so he began renovations.  During the work, a “book” (scrolls) of the laws of Moses was found. (2 Kings 22) That “book”, according to Tradition, was the Book of Deuteronomy, from which our first reading is taken.

 

Deuteronomy is a series of three speeches by Moses, and ends with the death of Moses. In essence, this book records Moses’ last words.  The speeches not only repeat the Covenant that the Israelites had with God, but they interpret it in more contemporary terms.  Our reading today is the end of the 1st speech.  The question Moses puts to the people is this:  “Do you realize how great God is?”  He reminds the people that God created the entire world, including us – all human-kind.  No one else had ever claimed that their God had spoken to them.  No other god had claimed their nation for his own, had done wonders and miracles, and had protected that nation by military might, defeating a large nation like Egypt to bring the people out of slavery.

 

Moses also told the people that all this evidence demands that people must obey God’s commandments and keep God’s laws which will enable them to live a long and prosperous life. Our Psalm gives us the same message in a poetic way:  “By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made…the eyes of the Lord are upon those who fear him…to deliver them from death and preserve them in spite of famine.”

 

There was one problem with all this – the Israelites came to believe that they were the “Chosen People” and that God would always protect them and provide for them, however faithful or unfaithful they were to God. This was despite the clear instruction by Moses that when people are not faithful to God, they break the covenant, thereby removing themselves from God’s protection. It was Jesus who came to resolve this constant breaking of the covenant, when he said, “…this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, which will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.”

 

Our 2nd reading speaks of the Spirit of God leading the sons and daughters of God.  God’s spirit is not one of oppression or fear.  Instead the image used is one of God “adopting” us.  Each of us then enters the inner circle of family, enjoying the highest level of love and protection; we are raised as the siblings of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit assures us with this beautiful image of close and enduring relationship with God.

 

Finally our Gospel is the last paragraph of the Gospel of Matthew, and gives us the final words of Jesus. Notice the similarity to our first reading, which records the final words of Moses.  Following ancient tradition, the last recorded words of a famous person or a great leader summarize the goals of their lives, and leave important and final advice for their followers.  Our Biblical authors use the same tradition.

 

So Matthew writes that Jesus’ last words were words of assurance: “I am with you always…” But some people may be amazed at the other thing Jesus emphasizes.  “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me”, he says.  All right, that fits with our understanding of the Risen Christ.  But what are we supposed to do with that information?  Well, we are to make sure everyone knows it; we are to teach it; and we are to share all of Jesus’ teachings.  “GO, therefore,” says Jesus, “And make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

 

It’s one thing if you view this as some kind of abstract statement of doctrine, something that someone else is responsible for. “Let someone else do it,” we think.  We put a $20 check in the mail and let some overseas mission team help the Christians in Palestine or Pakistan or Puerto Rico.

 

It’s something very different if we understand that Jesus was speaking to us. In a 4-mile radius circle of where we are sitting right this moment are thousands of people, and I can assure you that there are lots people who have never heard the teachings of Jesus, nor been baptized, nor know that God loves them.  I have every reason to believe that Jesus was speaking to us, personally, calling us to action, expecting us to look outward to our neighbors.  This interpretation is supported by the parable of the Good Samaritan (who is my neighbor?) and the parable of the talents (if we fail to invest in God’s Kingdom, we stand to lose what little we have!).  Pope Paul VI made it clear when he proclaimed, “Evangelization is in fact…the church’s deepest identity.  The church exists in order to evangelize.” Pope Benedict told us we are… “Agents of the Holy Spirit helping people have a profound experience of Jesus’ love…a love that opens them to the Word of God and the sacraments.”

 

So Moses urgently begged us to view God as the Creator of our world and of life itself. In turn, we are to love God and willingly follow the path, the guidance, and the life style God has shown us.  The result is a close and deep relationship with God.  The Spirit brings enduring love to us that can never be broken or stolen from us.  And Jesus is with us always, helping us make sure that all our neighbors join in this love and intimacy of family.  It is a view of the universe which far exceeds all our prayers and longings – but it must start by our action, our reaching out, our sharing of the faith and the joy that God brings us.