First…and Last

28th Sunday Ordinary Time, year B, 10-14-2018

Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30

Our 1st and 2nd readings today prepare us for the Gospel.  I would paraphrase our first reading like this: “ I would rather have (Wisdom) than to be King;  having riches is nothing in comparison with being wise. Wisdom is far greater than pearls or diamonds; and gold, next to Wisdom, is just a little sand.  Beyond even health and beauty, I love Wisdom. I chose to have wisdom rather than the light of the sun. ”

How many times have you heard people say that your health is more valuable than anything else? How many times have you talked with someone who blocked off their beauty appointments before anything else on their calendar?  How many people do you know that valued their job so highly that their spouse divorced them and their children despised them? We all have met people who have wanted wealth so badly they gave up their integrity and cheated their boss or their customers.  I could name names of people I have seen make those decisions, and listened to people who later realized how they had hurt themselves and those they loved by their choices.

In the readings from Hebrews, we find, “The Word of God is living and effective, sharper than any 2-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit…able to discern…thoughts of the heart.” It reminds me of the movie, “The Bodyguard” with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. Houston treats Costner’s sword carelessly, like a stage prop, but when he gently tosses her silk scarf into the air, to her amazement, the blade of the sword silently slices it cleanly in half as it floats down.  Only then does she recognize the sharpness of the blade.

In our Gospel, we find the Word of God, in the form of Jesus, penetrating the mind and motives of a man. This man brings so much to like and admire to the scene.   He is full of ambition, intelligent, obedient to the Law of Moses, honest and accomplished, and seeking eternal life.  He runs up, not afraid, or embarrassed, and kneels in respect to Jesus.  He is enthusiastic, he willingly comes to be taught, and he recognizes the authority of Jesus.

We would quickly label him as a man to watch. He has already amassed wealth, he takes action when he wants something, speaks confidently, and has the attitude of one whose name will be known to many. And he seeks out opportunity.  But he does not know how to “inherit eternal life.”  It seems he has found something he desires that he cannot obtain.

However, when he addresses Jesus, he reveals a lack of understanding – he calls Jesus a “Good Teacher”. The term means he admires the skill of Jesus as a teacher/rabbi.  He believes that “goodness” is something that we do, that our own effort creates.  He does not know yet that “goodness” comes from God, as a gift. He also asks, “What must I DO that I may” (get) eternal life”.  While he is willing to work hard, to pay, to earn eternal life, he does not understand that it, too, is a gift, a gift from the Cross, which it is not his to “earn”.

He longs for something that he does not find in the market place or buy from merchants; he knows there is something spiritual about it, for he has come to a traveling teacher who speaks of God in a way that no one else can.  He also senses that what he needs to be fulfilled will not rust or tarnish or die; it must be lasting, “eternal”.

I am on the Standing Committee for CACINA, which interviews people who wish to begin the process of preparing to be ordained as a Deacon or Priest. I can imagine how Jesus might have felt about this man.  Who wouldn’t want this man on your team of clergy?  This the type of person that could be someone you would want to build congregations with; a person who would draw parishioners from miles around, who could deliver the Good News so very well, who would work relentlessly for the Kingdom.  Mark says that Jesus loved him.  This encounter is so very personal, so unusual, so unlike the bitter debates with the Pharisees.

“One thing you lack,” Jesus says, and answers the man’s question, telling him how to have treasure in heaven, how to be fulfilled, how to find that which he is looking for.  Sell your stuff, he says, let go of the stuff, give the money away, release yourself from the hopeless burden of accumulating things that will not last and distract you from the gifts God gives. Then you will be ready to face your death, ready to give of yourself without counting the cost…and follow me.   There was no more conversation.  The man leaves, sad.  He had a lot of stuff, and he was willing to be in bondage to that stuff, he was willing to be a slave to it.  And Jesus said with compassion, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”

Here is where we need an historical note. The common Jewish theology of the day was that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing on a person.  Think about fasting – if you cannot afford food, you cannot fast.  Only the wealthy could fast.  The poor starved.  Think about giving alms – you must have wealth to give to the poor.  Wealth created the ability to be spiritual.  Wealth gave the opportunity to pay for the ritual cleansings,  and buy the animals to be sacrificed for your sins.  Wealth opened the way to heaven, or so they thought.

Now Jesus turns it all around. “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”  He continues with a metaphor from his time (and has been found in other literature from the period), “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Teachers then especially loved using enormous exaggeration for the purpose of teaching, and a camel was likely the largest animal people there would have encountered.  It is the contrast between the huge camel and the tiny eye that Jesus is going for. Some imaginative speakers tried to make this expression into a tiny doorway of sorts several years ago.  Forget all that, and focus on what Jesus is trying to tell us: that only with God’s gifts of love and faith and forgiveness do we enter heaven.  Nothing else works, regardless of how grand and glorious our works and our possessions might be.

Peter thinks, Hey! The apostles had given everything they had to be with Jesus! Jesus responds with an assurance of immense blessings – hundredfold! – and then sums it all up in one phrase: “Many who are first will be last, and the last, first.”  Let us be last to depend on wealth to open heaven, and the last to rely on self-created goodness. Let us be the first to praise God’s love and forgiveness, and the first to be thankful for all those who have carried their cross so that we might have faith.

 

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SLOW SEEDS??

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time 6-17-18

Ezekiel 17:22-24, Ps 92:2-16, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, Mark 4:26-34

All of our readings are beautiful and encouraging today. Our first reading, from the Prophet Ezekiel, brings us poetry about God’s love for us. After the Exile to Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the people of Israel feared that all the promises God had made to King David were forgotten. Ezekiel assures them that God has not forgotten, and that he will restore them as his people. God’s people will be like a “withered tree that blooms.” In fact, God will take from the very top of the giant cedar tree a tender shoot, a small branch, and he will plant that shoot on a mountain top. In time that small tender shoot will become a giant cedar tree. This is a poetic reference to a descendent of the last King from David’s line who was still alive. The promise that the Messiah will be a descendent of King David will still be fulfilled in Jesus. Not only that, but all the nations of the earth, represented by all the birds that nest in the tree, will gather once again. It is a wonderful image of evil overcome and goodness triumphant.

The Psalm also speaks of flourishing palm trees and great cedar trees, trees bearing fruit even in old age, vigorous and sturdy, a testament to God’s goodness and justice. Again, this poetic image brings us confidence in the permanence of God and God’s care for us. We can depend on the eternal security we find with God. We find strength and stability, as well as refreshment and restoration with God.

St. Paul in the 2nd reading speaks as a missionary who has traveled thousands of miles for God, facing multiple threats to his life as well as rejection and ridicule for his faith. He has found that wherever he is, home or away, in life or in death, his goal is to be pleasing to the Lord.   We will all face a final judgment, and all that we have done will be open to view. But that does not frighten us if what we have done has been good and we have led a life in imitation of Christ’s.

In our Gospel, we have two parables about seeds. Both parables deal with the same problem…why things appear as they do if the kingdom of God is indeed present. How can we experience evil and sickness if God is God of the world? We ask the same questions that the people asked of Ezekiel – has God forgotten us? Why is there so much evil, and why is life so difficult?

In the first parable we have today, the Growing Seed, the man sows, he sleeps and rises (this image indicates the passage of time) and then the man harvests the crop. There is every reason to believe the man also tills the soil, weeds, irrigates, and protects the crop while it grows. Ask any farmer – they do not sit idly by and wait for God to do all the work. Likewise, farmers will tell you they do not create the growth. They do the sowing and God begins process of growth.  But the parable says in effect, “The Kingdom is like a farmer who goes about his normal process of sowing seeds in the earth. Then the hand of God produces a plant and its fruit, and then comes the harvest.” It is a process of waiting patiently for the crop to ripen, and only at the right time can the harvest begin. The Kingdom of God will be ripe at the right time; the reign of God will be complete in God’s time.

The parables of the Sower who casts seed on the path and the rocks, in the thorns, and in the good soil, the Growing seed and the Mustard Seed ( all found in the same chapter of Mark) all answer questions and challenges to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom. Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom earlier in this same chapter of Mark when he told the parable of the man who sowed seed on the path and on the rocky ground, in the thorns and on good soil. He told his disciples then, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God…” But the people’s response was, “where?” and “why aren’t we free from Roman rule?” and “why are we still poor?” and “why are bad things still happening?” So Jesus tells us that it’s not a simple thing, this Kingdom. It is not an outward remodeling job of the world, where workers come and repair things on a schedule. Rather, the Kingdom is a total change of human hearts. It is happening at just the right speed, and the passage of time will be necessary. But there was a time of sowing (interpreted as being in the ministry of Jesus), a period of time is necessary for growth (now), and there will be a time of harvest. Traditionally in the Bible, “harvest” is the time of judgment and the end of time. Like the plant growth, some of which is not visible because it happens under the ground, we will not see all that happens during the growth of the Kingdom.

So we do not bring in the kingdom – we are the servants of the King who continue to sow and weed and water and protect, but we are not the cause or creator. Our own lives must follow the same process. God continuously reaches out to us, teaching us to obey, to reach out in love, to better understand the scriptures, to worship with a more pure heart. God is constantly planting the seeds of Godliness in us and others. We must nurture those seeds so that new life may grow within us. The process is slow, often delayed by our own distraction with other things.   The change within us must occur at what we might call a sub-cellular level, which cannot be rushed. I have often wondered, at the rate of one wafer per week, how many years it would take for all of my body cells to be made of Jesus. I haven’t done the math, but I am sure that the answer is, “a lifetime.” The fullness of the kingdom will come when the time is right. We can be confident that God, the cause and creator, is at work and God can and will bring us safely to harvest. Jesus is reassuring us the process is in motion; the goal has been set and will be achieved.

It is easy to become discouraged when we see dishonest people with tremendous wealth and power. It is hard to watch liars and thieves prosper. It makes us angry when we see innocent people suffer, it is terrible to see children shot down in schools. It is hard to watch people loose their savings and freedom to sickness or injuries which might have been prevented. We want to shake our fist at God, question the very existence of God, or demand an explanation of this world which seems filled with evil and injustice. Why would we not question that the kingdom of God is here, now?   How and when will the Kingdom finally overcome everything we judge to be wrong and unfair?   That is the question that we are given an answer for today.

Paul says it best when he writes, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7) The Prophet Isaiah says God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), and St. Peter said, “Do not ignore this one fact, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2Peter 3:8-9)

Continue to sow the seeds of love and truth, and believe.

Another View of Easter

 

4th Sunday Easter, April 22, 2018

Acts 4:8-12;  Psalm 118;  1 John 3: 1-2;  John 10: 11-18

 

Today, we look again at Easter, starting with the Gospel of John. John inserted teaching dialogues by Jesus between some of the action scenes. The teaching we read is about Jesus’ coming death in terms of “The Good Shepherd”, which then leads into Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. John, you see, identifies the raising of Lazarus as the turning point when the High Priests began to plot to kill Jesus. These scenes flow together to build up to the crucifixion. We are doing exactly what the disciples did after Easter –looking back at what Jesus taught, and discovering new meaning in the light of the Resurrection.

Here are the key Gospel verses: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I am the good shepherd and I will lay down my life for the sheep. This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.”

Background: Palestine is at the intersection of Asia, Europe and Africa, so there are many large wild predators – Persian Lions, Cheetahs, Lynx, and leopards. A shepherd would have good reason to protect himself, to allow these fierce cats to take a sheep, and not try to intervene. The people understood the grave danger of being a shepherd. In this passage, Jesus repeats his promise to lay down his life for the sheep 3 times; making a sacred oath that he will give his life for us.

Notice that Jesus does not put limitations on this oath. It’s not, “if” the sheep is well behaved or “if” it is obedient. In fact, there are no “If” clauses in the promise. We are given this loving protection without reservation. Those listening to Jesus, not realizing he was talking about people, found this promise extravagant and unnatural.

Our 1st reading is a continuation from the Book of Acts we have been reading since Easter. Acts is a thriller; it is high drama, with conflict and death. It is a coming of age story for the disciples. It is an exciting history of the early church. It is a self improvement book, a great stand-alone read.

Anyway, today we read the 3rd of Peter’s sermons. The 1st was at Pentecost, the 2nd was when Peter healed a man crippled from birth and was arrested for healing him. This 3rd sermon is Peter responding to the charges of the High Priests the following day. You immediately notice how bold and articulate Peter is. He is no longer the rough fisherman who denied Christ on Good Friday and fearfully hid in the locked room on Saturday. He is “Peter infused with the Holy Spirit” now.

Peter starts by telling the High Priests that the cripple was healed in the Name of Jesus (get that – merely the name has power to heal), AND that Jesus has risen from the dead. That blast of information is enough to knock the High Priests off their feet. Then Peter quotes Scripture, just as Jesus would have.

He bases his argument in Psalm 118, which shows the High Priests that they have made a terrible error in judgment. They have rejected the very person and the salvation promised in yet another promise, by God, long ago in a Psalm of King David. Jesus is the very cornerstone, the support piece on which rests our salvation. Jesus is the “promised one”. Our lectionary does not include the Priests’ response; you can read it on your own.

But our lectionary does give us part of Psalm 118. If you were a youth group, I would have scripts with your parts identified by speaker so that you could act this out. It is a beautiful piece of ancient liturgy; this is dramatic liturgy at its best, with speaking parts for the priests, the people and the king. It was written for the occasion of a great victory, a celebration which proclaimed God as their strength in danger. Each speaker proclaims God’s mercy, and there is testimony of how God saved them from what seemed to be certain death. They were surrounded on every side in battle – the “enemy encompassed me like bees”, the King says. “They flared up like fire among thorns. I was hard pressed and was falling, but the Lord helped me.” Who has not felt like that at some time in their life?   Who has never felt overwhelmed and that their problems were greater than their strength?

But the Lord makes the tiny and weak victorious over evil and death, just as the Lord had brought tiny Israel, overwhelmed by larger and greater forces, to military victory. At that time, Israel thought it was the rejected stone. But now we understand the one who was rejected as Jesus.   And Jesus has become the anchoring base for our lives, our church, and our world. “This,” the king in the Psalm announced, “is the day the Lord has made,” using the same expression we use to announce Easter. The priests respond to the king with a blessing: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.” We make church relevant when we see and celebrate the movement of God in our own lives, here and today in our liturgy.

So Jesus has told us that we are of great value to him, so much so that he will suffer and die for us. Realizing that Jesus is alive, Peter is filled with the Spirit of God, boldly preaching that Jesus loves us and protects us from evil. Peter confidently places his own life and well-being in Jesus’ hands. And the Psalm assures us that God has loved and protected believers from long ago. These readings give us another viewpoint of the meaning of this Easter Season and why we celebrate it with such great joy.

Homily, February 4, 2018-the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

5sun1In the gospel, we see Jesus leave the Synagogue and go to Peter’s house. Peter’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever and Jesus heals her and helps her up. She then waits on Jesus and his disciples. After sundown when the sabbath ends, the sick from the town start to come to Jesus to be healed. The following morning, Jesus arose early and set out alone in 5sun2the desert. Later when his disciples caught up, he said it was time to move on. He said he had not come to heal, but to teach the word of God. So he continued on. Jesus, more than any of us was aware of a mission, of a reason he was 5 sun3here. Unlike ourselves, he avoided distractions and continued his journey. His life, his service, his love left much for his disciples and followers who followed and came after him to do and imitate. His journey was to give his message to the whole world and so it has been for his followers. But the world today is not perfect, nor has it been in any century. The twentieth century, the last one, was filled with war and ugliness that people could impose on their peers. Violence, and war seems to be a part of what people are. But why? People are kind and loving with their own, why not beyond the family and the boundaries of town and country. Jesus taught who was our neighbor, and ultimately our neighbor is the one who can express love and care for others. Everything we do for a neighbor, a brother or sister, we do for a loving, unifying reason. More 5 sun4

than anything, we are called to reach out to the Jobs of this world. Even in our time there are those filled with despair and the drudgery of daily life. They need our support and help. We should reach out and offer a hand, a word, some solace. After all, we all have a bad time a some point or another. None of us can do it alone without God’s help and those around us.

Four Steps of Attitude Adjustment

22nd Sun Ord time, 9-3-17

Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm: 63:2-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

Our readings today could easily be titled: The Four Steps of Attitude Adjustment. Let me explain what I mean.  We start with The Prophet Jeremiah in our first reading.  This is step one. Like most of us when we are compelled to do something we don’t want to do, Jeremiah is whining.  He blames God; he says he was “duped”/ “seduced”/ “misled”.  Jeremiah wants God to know that he is doing this job as a prophet against his will.  He is frightened by the threats made against him.  He is tired of being ridiculed.  He himself thinks the message God has given him to share with the people is a message of violence; he is disguised with himself for delivering the message.

So why does he continue to be a prophet for God? Jeremiah has tried to stop.  He promised himself he would stop.  But then the message “becomes like a fire burning in my heart”; he says he cannot hold the words in, he feels weak and out of control. The way Jeremiah describes his situation is almost like compulsive behavior or addiction; he is full of negativity and resistance.

The next situation, step two, starts off well. We look at is the apostle Simon Peter in the Gospel.  Peter has just been given the name of “Peter”, or the solid, stone foundation for the Church.  Peter is given the keys to heaven, and great authority; it seems impressive.  But then, in just a few moments, it goes from ideal to awful.  Jesus begins to talk about suffering and being killed.  What had sounded glorious has turned grisly.

Peter is so full of himself that he tries to set Jesus straight; he says Jesus is wrong, mistaken.  Surely the Son of God will not allow himself to be victimized by the chief priests, of all people! Peter had been thinking that he was strong enough to stand in his own power, but that illusion is swept away.  Jesus calls him the Devil.  Ouch!!  Jesus persists, saying that Peter must expect to take up his cross!!  Had Peter signed up for crucifixion??  He would lose his life? OMG!

Step 3 starts off badly, with our Psalmist saying, “my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.” He clearly is not in control of his situation, either.  He sounds like a guy in real trouble.  But he is actually seeking greater power than himself.  Suddenly it changes; everything changes.  He looks into the temple and sees a vision of the power and glory of God.  He sees kindness so intense it is a greater good than life itself.

Praise for God comes out of his mouth without thinking – he blesses God, lifts up his hands in worship and calls out for God.  He is no longer hungry or thirsty – he feels as if he is at the richest and most abundant of banquets, where every possible desire for food and drink will be satisfied.  He feels sheltered; he clings to God as a steady and reliable force for his life and is filled with joy.

Finally, we read from St. Paul, who has already suffered a stoning and beatings for teaching the Good News of Jesus.  He does not even consider his own strength or power.  He offers instead the “mercies of God.”  He tells us the attitude of success is one of offering our self to God, like a living sacrifice, and offering worship to God.  Paul adds that we do not need to behave like the people around us, but rather our attitude needs to tune into God, changing and renewing us, enabling us to know the will of God.  Then we will understand what really is good and pleasing to God.  Instead of trying to control a situation, or bend a situation to our desires and benefit, we should choose to be molded into a new direction, a different understanding, where we can begin to understand how to be loving and just and true.

RECAP

Jeremiah wanted life to be easy and pleasant. He just wants to fit in, have some buddies, and go with the flow. He is very conflicted; God is cramping his style.

Peter is a good man. Power and authority also sound good to him, but only if he’s on the winning side.  He loves Jesus; but he’s hoping for maybe a little upward mobility?  He wants God to defeat the Roman army and take charge.

Next our Psalm writer is looking for God, even in the midst of thirst and hunger. He goes to the temple, and finds a spirit of glory and kindness.  Without one bite of food, he feels filled and satisfied.  Without any power of his own, he feels safe and joyful with God.

Last is Paul, who can open himself fully to God’s plan, and wants to conform to God’s ways; he is ready, and urges us, to commit – body, soul, and mind.

This is not a process that necessarily comes from intelligence, maturity, experience or background.  It is not a program where you just follow 4 easy steps. It is a gift of the Spirit which we can choose to nurture and follow.  For each person, the path is unique; ironically blissful and demanding at the same time.  Yes, the retirement plan is outstanding, but living the Godly life is unexpectedly and deeply rewarding.

My friends, keep up the good work.

Homily August 26, 2017- the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

21sun1Who do you say that I am? One Apostle replied, the one who spoke out and answered for all. His words were words of faith, words of belief in Christ, the Son of the living God. This faith was praised by Jesus and in fact he made it the foundation, the rock on which the faith and church have been built. To Peter and to the Apostles came the charge to be the Rabbis of Christ’s church, to watch over and mediate and bind and loose disputes in the name of Christ and his church. We can see Christ’s intent in how the early church and the apostles went about spreading and 21sun2expanding the church. When major decisions were made, we see the apostles and their successors come together to collaborate and decide what was the way to go in Christ’s name. As time passed and the church grew, the structure changed and seemingly the way things were decided also changed, but still the coming together of the bishops(the successors of the apostles) still remains a key in the foundational faith of the church and the power of dispensing God’s love and mercy to the faithful. Certainly, in an institution made up of 21sun 3men, Christ ‘s admonition of binding and loosing comes through the many councils of the church with the inspiration of the Spirit over the ages. Christianity has failed in some respects as divisions and disagreements over the centuries has led to numerous divisions. Yet, Christ remains before the world and his word is present to that world in many ways. While as Christians we would like to see unity, recognition of Jesus as Lord and following him has always got to be paramount as we move forward to a union in a life ahead. Peter and the Apostles answered that call today, and so are we called to answer, to embrace the Son of the Living God and live out his message.