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.

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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.

Culture and Changes

19th Sunday Ordinary time, August 12, 2018

Texts:  Kings 19:4-8; Ps 34:2-9; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

We continue to read from the Gospel of John, chapter 6.  Two weeks ago, we read the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 or more people with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.  Everyone ate as much as they wanted, and still there were leftovers.   We also learned that John’s Gospel was primarily written for people who had already accepted Christianity, and John’s goal is to deepen their faith and their understanding of Jesus.

Last week we found Jesus trying to enlarge the crowd’s understanding of “bread” and “work”; he told them to not work for food which perishes, but for food that leads them to eternal life. They ask Jesus for manna, the heavenly bread that God gave the Israelites after they escaped Egypt.  Jesus responded that God gives the true bread from heaven, and they ask for that bread.  Jesus then says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He talks of becoming close to God, of gaining wisdom and understanding.

We pick up there today, and we begin to notice some changes in the way the story is told. First, we start off with “The Jews” murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  In our first two readings, the crowd is referred to as “the people” or just “they”.  Suddenly they are referred to as “the Jews”.  That label, in John’s Gospel, indicates unbelievers, especially those hostile to Jesus in Jerusalem. The crowd came looking for free food, and they are disappointed that no magic bread has appeared.  They are critical because Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” Oddly enough, John did not record Jesus saying that exact statement in the previous verses.

There are two pieces of Mediterranean culture you need to know to understand this scene. First, “Honor” was very important, and honor required that a person stay in their family’s social status, maintain it, and never consider “getting ahead.” Unlike our culture, any attempt then to raise your social status or behave differently from your birth status was shameful because it was seen as divisive and disruptive to the community. Second, the way that people were pressured to follow the rules of society was to be sharply criticized and shamed. So the crowd immediately and bluntly reminds Jesus of who his parents are (not from heaven) and what their social status is, in attempt to belittle him and “keep him in his place”. Jesus tells them to stop complaining.

John used the exact same word for their “murmurs” (or complaints) as is used for the complaints of the Israelites in Exodus (the people who received the manna from God). Those people were portrayed as shallow people who had just been divinely rescued from hard labor and slavery and were not only ungrateful but outrageously rude to and demanding of God. The crowd who, a few verses ago, had difficulty grasping the symbolism of bread now sounds like Rabbis arguing about scripture. Now they use the formal “How can he say” format that was traditional when debating a meaning of the scriptures.

The crowd is behaving just as the label “The Jews” would indicate, with hostility. So Jesus offers the crowd an alternative to hostility. He says, “No one can come to me unless the Father…draws him…” Draw means to “bring near”. In this case, it means to bring someone near to Scripture, and open to them the knowledge of God. For John, when we listen and learn from God, we become close with/ near to Jesus. Jesus quotes a verse from Isaiah 54:13, that in the New Jerusalem, in the last days, “(the people) shall be taught (directly) by God”, a very personal relationship indeed.

It seems that someone different wrote this part of our reading, maybe a later editor added something or changed it. Biblical studies can be complicated by such events. We don’t have the originals of any of the Gospels, only copies that have been made by scribes whose tedious jobs were to copy them by hand, and the copies do not always agree. We do not know for sure who the original writers were, and who may have changed or added information, and Bible experts do not always agree even to what the author meant.

This is a good place to look at our other readings. In 1st Kings, we see the angel of God bring bread to Elijah, who was in deep despair and exhausted. It was a way to heal and restore Elijah to health and wholeness; it shows great care and gentleness. Likewise, the 2nd reading urges us to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving. Bitterness, anger, shouting, abusive language, and intent to harm or injure others has no place in our lives and grieves the Holy Spirit. We are to imitate God, living in love as Christ loved us. The Psalm urges us to “taste and see” how good God is. All 3 readings speak of God’s love and goodness.

So today we had new and different language (“The Jews” instead of ‘the crowd);  we have the mood of the crowd change, as they belittle Jesus. Last week, I said, “The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves opened the door for people to have an insight into who Jesus was and how he will “feed” our souls for eternity. Now, we have a new image for the bread, a more traditional Eucharistic image of the bread as the body of Christ. Now Jesus says, “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.” This is the introduction of another way of viewing bread, one that speaks strongly of the Eucharist rather than just manna/bread and learning wisdom and coming to understand God. And that is where we will pick up next week!  Join me then!

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?

The Metanoia Road

3rd Sunday of Easter, April 15, 201818

Acts 3: 13-15,17-19;  Psalm 4: 2-9;  1John 2: 1-5,  Luke 24: 35-48

I will go out on a limb a little here, and hope that most everyone knows the story in Luke about “the Road to Emmaus”. It’s all in the very last chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Luke tells about a group of at least 5 women finding the tomb open and empty on Easter morning. They told the apostles, but the men did not believe them. That same day, two of Jesus’ followers left Jerusalem and started out, feeling sad and discouraged, on the 7 mile walk to Emmaus. Jesus joined them on their walk, but they didn’t recognize him. Jesus then interpreted the scriptures to them, explaining all that Moses and the many prophets had fore-told about him.

When they arrived at Emmaus, the men eagerly invited him to sit down to eat with them. But when Jesus took the bread and blessed it, they suddenly recognized him, and he disappeared. Usually we end the story with the verse “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked and opened to us the scriptures?” But that is not the end of the story. Our Gospel today is what immediately follows.

Much of the time Jesus spent on earth, as the “historical Jesus” in the Gospels, he spent physically moving about. In a different way, he moved people around a lot too. He moved them from pain and disability to health. He moved people from doubt to belief. He moved people from confusion to clarity. He moved people from sin to grace and mercy. He moved those fishermen right into being fishers of people.

I would define a church as a group of people who want to be moved to love more, to be kinder and more compassionate, to being more generous, to better understanding the Risen Christ in their own lives. And when people choose to make their church a place of that type of movement, something else happens. People want to help other people, people outside of their church group, to move closer to Christ and make all those other good moves, too. And all the people begin to understand that this journey we are on moves along easier with a better understanding of Scripture. It just makes sense to follow Jesus’ lead on this!

So when the two men return to Jerusalem from Emmaus, they share their experience with the Risen Lord with the apostles and other disciples, when suddenly Jesus appears in the room. They don’t understand; they are terrified and Jesus has to show them his hands and feet and have them touch him, and he eats some fish in front of them to prove he is real. And once again, he explains the scriptures. He continues this time, and reminds them that he had told them it was their job now to teach repentance, for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all the nations.

But we have a language problem. “Repent” seems to imply that we have already done something wrong, regret it, and now want to behave differently. But Biblically, this is not all there is to it. In the gospels, the Greek word used for repentance is metanoia. Literally this means to do an about face, to turn around, to face in an entirely new direction.

So, metanoia means to move us beyond our present mindset, beyond our present way of thinking.  To repent is to let the soul, which is the image and likeness of God within us, re-configure us so that we are so overwhelmed with compassion and love that indeed we do turn and change how we think, how we understand, how we order our priorities, and how we react.  We must move past regret focused on our mistakes, and respond like Peter, in our first reading.  He meets some of those men who coerced Pilate into killing an innocent Jesus merely to make the social, economic, and political structure of the day benefit them a little longer.

Amazingly, Peter was so filled with compassion and love that he would joyfully lead them to repent and have their sins wiped away. The Catholic Church leadership was traditionally rooted in Peter, who clearly understood deeply and acted out “All Are Welcome Here – even the murderers of Jesus.”   It is a tradition to be proud of, and continued; to welcome man or woman, clean or addict, poor or rich, whatever color or race or sexual orientation, political affiliation, education level, ignorance quotient and so on and so on.  Only metanoia-style repentance can produce that level of welcome.

By now it is becoming clear that Jesus’ followers have to change. They no longer can be just followers of Jesus. They must begin to preach the Good News of Forgiveness and New Life in Christ. For mature Christians, Scripture and the Eucharist are sources of the necessary strength and connection with Jesus. That is what Jesus left his disciples. But many people today have never studied Scripture or been taught the meaning of the Eucharist. And those people will be the next generation of the church only if we want them to join us on our journey down the metanoia road.

Think about how those disciples felt that night, together with the Risen Christ. What is it they will go and do as a result of this experience? They will build a new “Way” for believers to worship and act out in faith. How were their lives different than before? They become bold and articulate, eager for difficult challenges. The life journey of those two men going to Emmaus Easter Day was certainly very different than the one they had planned. Spiritual leadership is about taking people on a journey, and every single Christian must participate fully in spiritual leadership before their joy will be full. What will be your first step on this journey? Where will you begin?

Do We Hear God’s Voice?

4th Sunday in Ordinary time

Deut 18:15-20; Psalm: 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28

Our 1st reading today starts with a reminder of when Moses brought down the 10 commandments from the mountain (Exodus 20: 10).  There was thunder and lightening.  The earth trembled, the clouds were thick, and there was a sound like trumpets blasting.  It was scary; the people were afraid.  They believed that they could die from getting too close to God.  They never again wanted to hear the voice of God.

We believe God loves us, “and we long to see his face.” But have you ever wondered why God does not speak to us directly?  Have you ever said, “I wish God would just tell me the answer to my problems”? We complain that God does not communicate with us clearly, making it hard to know the right thing to do.

In Moses day, there was an answer to the problem – people were called to be “prophets”. A prophet does not foretell the future; a prophet just relates a message clearly and accurately from God to a person or a group of people.  Of course, that was no guarantee that anyone would do what the prophet said.  The Old Testament is filled with the stories of people who found God’s message too difficult, or found the advice of other people more appealing, which always lead to humiliations and hardships.

Our Psalm mentions one of the occasions when this happened. While traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land, God gave Moses and the Israelites manna and quail to eat.  But when they camped at a place which had no water, the people quarreled and rebelled against Moses’ leadership.  They still failed to trust when Moses told them that God would provide for them, even after they had eaten the manna and seen God’s strength lead them out of slavery in Egypt!  They rebelled against both God’s message and the prophet who brought the message.  That is why the place was named Massah (quarrel) and Meribah (rebel).  Once again, their fear had stopped them from hearing God.  The Psalm is a prayer that we might to be able to hear God without a messenger.

Finally, our reading from Mark follows immediately after Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John from their fishing to follow him. It is the first time Jesus teaches in a local synagogue and does a healing miracle.  They know Jesus only as the son of Joseph, a carpenter.  The amazement of the people is somewhat skeptical.  How is Jesus able to speak and teach with more understanding and knowledge than even the scribes, who are educated, who read and write with ease?  Why is Jesus so sure of himself and teaches as one with vast experience and understanding? He is like a prophet who confidently announces words which come from God, and heals, too!

The unclean spirit in the man recognizes Jesus’ authority. The spirit cries out, literally shrieks in fear of Jesus, as Moses’ people had feared God.  The spirit is unable to disobey and leaves the man. The people debate among themselves, trying to understand what they have witnessed.  But they cannot deny what they have seen, and the news spreads rapidly.  The fame of Jesus builds as the people recognize, even if they do not name the source of it, his authority and his power.

If only Mark had recorded the teaching! We do not know what he said, only the stunning impact he created on the people.  It is hard not to wish we had been there to experience what amazed the people so. We also wish we had the clarity of Jesus’ teaching and his presence among us.

But we do! We have 4 Gospels, 4 different and fascinating records of the life, teaching, and miracles of Jesus.  We also have all the letters by Paul and others that have been saved. We have some 2000 years of church history and Tradition.  Many wise and faithful Christians have left their legacies, their lives, their writings, their studies for us.  It is an incredible and vast collection to help us grow in the faith.  We no longer have to wonder who Jesus was.  Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit; we have the Spirit indwelling in our hearts to guide us.

But what if we fail to read or study the teaching of Jesus? We are like people who read only the first paragraph of each chapter of a book and think they are ready to attend a book club discussion. We would be like students who don’t read the assigned text book, expecting a couple of important bulletin points to be emailed to them by the professor.  Hearing just short passages on Sunday robs us of the crucial settings and background of why, for example, Jesus told a particular parable.  Jesus often refers to Moses and Abraham – how can we understand those references unless we know those characters and their stories.

Have you ever been pressed to explain or defend baptism or the Eucharist, and had difficulty? Do we take the Traditions of the church seriously? Do we learn all we can about why we pray as we do, why we have the sacraments and the depth of their meaning? No wonder we are so hesitant to tell other people about our faith and what it means to us.  For our message to be attractive to others, it must include our knowledgeable and personal experience with God as Father, Brother, and Friend.

Perhaps we think God is silent because we are silent about God. Perhaps we have stopped listening to God and focused on all the “thunder and lightening” of our culture instead.  Perhaps we still fear God, because we do not yet know God.  Oh, that today we would hear God’s voice!