100% God

29th Sunday Ordinary time, 10-22-17. Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Palm 96:1-10; 1Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22: 15-21

 

We start today with Cyrus. To help us understand this, and indeed all our readings today, we need to know who Cyrus was, what he did, and why Isaiah gives such glowing praise to him.

Here’s some history: Babylon came into prominence in ancient history about 1,830 years before the birth of Christ.  But the Babylon we read about in the Bible is mostly the Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar. In 586 BC they captured and destroyed Jerusalem, taking all the treasures from the Temple, killing many of the people, and taking most of the remaining population as captives to exile in Babylon.  The military tactics of Babylon were to take everything of value and kill and burn everything else. They ruled over other nations by destroying the population centers, the culture, and the very way of life of their victims.  This is why the Bible uses Babylon as a symbol and synonym for evil.

But what goes around comes around, and brutal Babylon fell to Cyrus, the Persian king, in 540 BC.  Cyrus had an entirely different style from Nebuchadnezzar. He would negotiate with nations before he used force. In the end, he ruled most of Europe and Asia, and created the largest Empire in history.  Cyrus respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered and is still recognized for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy. He established a government which –listen to this!-worked to the advantage and profit of its subjects; and he repatriated the people to their original homelands, even decreeing that the Temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt.  Cyrus is the only non-Jew to be called “the anointed one”, the same title given to Israel’s kings, because he restored the Jewish Nation.  His behavior, and by extension, his image is forever a part of Jewish history.  But God is still God, and the only God.

The truth is that Cyrus acted more like God than many of Israel’s kings. The people of Ancient Israel were to understand that their true King was indeed God, not the man who sat on the throne.  Our Psalm then, is an enthronement Psalm, which was to be sung at the annual feast where the king took his throne to symbolize God’s kingship over the people.

Moving on to the Gospel, it is important to start by saying that Jesus does not pull off a “smooth dodge” to a difficult question, but rather roughly confronts his challengers. They were immediately stripped of their pretense and proven to be hypocrites. Jesus won round one by the fact that they were carrying and handed him a Roman coin which proclaimed Caesar to be divine and had an image of him (considered by Jews to be a sinful and idolatrous “graven image”).

Secondly, is this about a 40/60 or 30/70 split between God and Caesar? No! Even the question of what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar is meaningless.  We have missed Jesus’ point if we try to sort our lives into two piles: one for God and one for the Caesar-type God-want-to-be’s.  For we were created in God’s image.  If the image of Caesar on the coin means the coin belongs to Caesar and recognizes Caesar as head of the Roman Empire, then if we bear the image of God, who do we belong to?  Who rules over our lives?  God, of course, 100%. God ruled over Caesar and all human leaders, even the Pharisees and the Herodians.  Jesus won round two when he sent a clear message of shame to them by revealing their question as a denial of God’s role in their lives.  They were resisting what they themselves taught as God’s message and they were not acting as God has taught them.

Finally, Jesus is not talking about a division between church and state.   That is a modern American concept, and would be unheard of in Judea in Jesus’ day.  It’s not about paying taxes.  That was just the cover story of the challengers. This is a confrontation regarding the teachings and authority of Jesus, and over the last few weeks we have read a total of 5 confrontations where Jesus has used increasingly strongly worded and pointed parables to shame those who challenged him into seeing their errors.  We have heard the laborers in the vineyard, the two sons in the vineyard, the landowner whose tenants killed his son, the wedding feast, and now the coin question.  In Matthew’s Gospel, all these stories are told during Holy Week.  It is as if Jesus is pulling out all the stops to help his challengers understand, and instead they become more entrenched, angrier, and increasingly determined to silence him.

The saddest paradox of this exchange is that these Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and Herodians, have Jesus standing in front of them. This is what ultimately reveals their blindness to God. It’s painful to read about the stubbornness of those men.  It’s even more painful to have people we care about in our lives who will not change their response to God.  It’s especially painful to find those hidden places in our own lives that do not reflect Christ’s love, his prayers and teaching, his generosity and patience, and his sacrifice for us.  To live our lives in God’s image, we can look to Christ.

But St. Paul had found, in Thessalonica, people who had chosen to look to Christ.  Paul leaves us more hopeful as we read what he wrote to them, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope.”  The Gospel, Paul says, “…did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”  And so, we are encouraged to seek the Gospel in Word and in Power and with much conviction, with the help of the Holy Spirit, who stands ready, day and night, to bring us a constantly deeper understanding of God, allowing us to live in God’s image.

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God Looks for Justice and Sees Bloodshed

27th Sunday Ordinary time, 10-8-17.

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm: 80: 9-16, 19-20; Philippians 4:4-9; Matthew 21:33-43

Have you ever listened to the Gospel on Sunday morning and, inside your head, thought: “Not this one again.”  We all have favorite scripture readings, and those we don’t like so much.  Just the raw violence and disregard for life in this Gospel bothers me. Maybe it will help to start with the Old Testament reading.

The reading from Isaiah, of course is “The Classic Vineyard Passage of the Bible”. It is Isaiah scolding and beside himself with frustration. The people who had a covenant with God, God’s chosen ones, just weren’t keeping their end of the deal, and the future would go very badly for them if they didn’t shape up.   God had proclaimed the people of Judah as “His Cherished Plant”, but when God looked for justice, God saw bloodshed instead, Isaiah says. They were not living as God would have them live. When God looked for righteousness in the land, God instead heard an outcry from those who had been abused and oppressed and cast aside. The people were not living spiritual or moral lives. As the verses following Isaiah’s vineyard parable make clear, the prophet had witnessed violence and drunkenness along with bribery to cover lies and cheating the innocent.

God have given them everything they needed, God had given them fertile land, cleared it of stones, planted the choicest vines, built a watch tower, and hewed out the wine press. He had protected it with a hedge. So, God will allow it to dry up, and be overgrown with the thorns of sin.

We have to make a big jump over to the Gospel. It was Tuesday of Holy Week. Sunday, Jesus had processed into Jerusalem as the crowd waved palm branches to welcome him. He had cleaned the merchants out of the Temple who were overcharging the people and thrown out the money-changers who cheated the people. Those merchants and money-changers had bribed the temple authorities to be in a part of the Temple where they should not have been. Now, we find Jesus teaching the people, to their delight. And the chief priests and the elders came up to him and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Their question was just the usual game, where they planned to mock him, and deny that his authority was from God. Instead of playing their game, he told them 3 parables. The first was the two sons, whose father had asked them to work in his vineyard, which we read last week. Next he told them the parable we read today. The third parable we will read next week.

Jesus has in mind the way the nation has violently rejected the prophets God has sent to them. He updates the parable with the violence practiced by those who do not obey God’s ways. In Jesus’ rendition of the Vineyard Passage, the servants of the landowner are beaten, killed and stoned. Even the son of the landowner will be killed by the tenants in a senseless attempt to get control of the property. Jesus senses the mood of the city and the leaders; he knows that he, the son of the land-creator, will be killed by these tenants in three days.

It’s time for a new update to the vineyard story. This week 58 people were killed by a man who had carefully planned to kill -not individuals who had harmed him somehow – rather he chose to kill at random. I cannot begin to imagine the cost of the medical care alone. But worse, people will be imprisoned in fear, and their minds will replay endlessly the terror of that night. Hundreds more have lost limbs, will be in pain and disabled for the rest of their lives, will have to undergo countless hours of surgeries and medical procedures to be able to just move, to talk, or to eat. Their bones and bodily organs have been irreparably shattered by high powered bullets. Children have lost parents, parents are mourning children. Lives have not only been lost but ruined, for no purpose, no gain, and no apparent reason.

Before the 1960’s the 2nd amendment to the US constitution was not interpreted as pertaining to the use of weapons by citizens without need for them for food or protection.  Certainly, our founding fathers did not have, or even image, the use of automatic or semi-automatic weapons to kill innocent people enjoying music.

Yet, here we are, in a time and place where the only limit on the amount of ammunition you can buy is how much money you have. Mass shootings are now a part of the fabric of America.  Since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the US has seen 1,518 acts of gun violence in which at least four people were wounded or killed, according to the Gun Violence Archive website.  That’s nearly one mass shooting a day for the 1,754 days since that slaughter of the Connecticut children and teachers.  The crimes claimed the lives of 1,715 people and wounded more than 6,000 others – and Congress has not enacted any significant new gun legislation.  I repeatedly hear – but have not seen the numbers and names -that the majority of American voters want new gun control laws, but the gun lobby is funding election campaigns, and only the candidates who turn their backs on the issue of guns get the money.

I have been told that the church should not be involved in political issues. Is “Thou shall not kill” a political issue? If so, then I am out of line. If not, then we must make some changes, for the vineyard is all shot up, there is blood everywhere, and the thorns are so thick that there can be no more wine of joy.

Curiously, 3 years ago, I preached my last homily at St Charles of Brazil Parish. It was the week of the parable of the    two sons being asked by their father to work in his vineyard, which we read last week. I updated that parable this way: The father said his son named Australia, “Go to work in the vineyard of social action.”  And the son replied,   “No, I don’t want to.  It is hard and contentious work.  People will be angry and argumentative.  It costs money.”  But the son named Australia saw blood on the ground, and he went to work. Agreement came and lives were saved.

The father said to his son named America, “Go to work in the vineyard of social action.”  And this son said, “Yes, I am tired of all these tears and empty school desks.”  But it was hard and contentious work.  People were angry and argumentative.  And the son named America went home, and sat down to watch “Dancing with the Stars” to help him forget.  Who did his father’s will?

So the vineyard story has not changed, at least for the better. Our memory of the covenant/ our relationship with God remains weak.  The thieves, the murderers, the liars, the cheaters, and the ones who bribe their way through the world, have not changed.  Evil seems to be thriving.  Darkness reigns, it would seem.  The future will go very badly – unless we hear the messages of Isaiah, Jesus, and God and take action.

Unity in Community

26th Sunday Ordinary Time 10-1-17

Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm: 25:4-9;  Philippians 2:1-11 (a must read before you continue);  Matthew 21:28-32

 

We usually focus on the Gospel reading, but last Sunday we started a 4-week reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi.  This is one of his more straightforward letters, with fewer complex sentences and less dense theology. Indeed, this is a beautiful passage.   In fact, this is one of his letters written from jail.  It’s probably fair to say that when people are confined, contrary to their own wishes, without knowing what the future will bring, they become introspective, and begin the process of identifying their real priorities and deeply held beliefs.  Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Letters from Birmingham Jail”, and Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote letters and poems, both of which are good examples of this.

 

Paul is writing to encourage the Philippians. There are some growing divisions in their community.  Some outside people have come to them in attempt to weaken the message of God’s love and move them toward harsh legalism and bondage to law instead.  It is a time when they need to remain strong in their faith, and not be intimidated by opponents. Paul stresses the themes of Joy (in prayer, in work, in the Gospel, and in suffering).  He also stresses fellowship with each other (unmarred by selfishness or pride), and in the Good News of Christ.

 

So he begins by a series of rhetorical questions, reminding the Philippians of the privileges and duties of a Christian, of the life they are to live as Christians, and the strength they have found in the life of Christ and in their own lives as a Christian community.

  1. Did you find encouragement in Christ himself?
  2. Have you found comfort in the blessings of love and given that love to others without reserve or discrimination?
  3. Have you come together in One Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and found a unity unlike any other?
  4. What has it been like to experience the tenderness and compassion of God and has it made you reach out to others with deep-seated and sincere affection and sympathy?
  5. Can you fill me with joy to hear of your harmony and loving cooperation?

 

Then he offers advice to keep them strong and on the right track.

  1. Selfishness, inflated egos, personal ambition, and pride destroy unity.
  2. Regard others as more important than yourself; look for those strengths and gifts that other people have and be aware of your own weaknesses, failures and limitations.
  3. Make a habit of thinking and speaking of the needs and interests of others as well as your own. Your thoughts and attitudes are the basis of your speech and action.

 

So where do these virtues come from? Who modeled them for us?  Christ, of course!  But it goes deeper than that.  Christ established a pattern of humiliation – glorification.  What I mean is, Christ’s humiliation began before his birth, as he chose to come to earth not as an all-powerful, all-knowing God, that people would fall on their knees in front of him, but as a vulnerable human child of poor parents, threatened by King Herod, forced to flee for his very life, and destined to grow and mature slowly, doing manual labor.  Then he was a wandering preacher, outside of the centers of power and prestige, with no home, sometimes hungry and often misunderstood.  He endured the press and demands of the crowds, the neediness of the sick, and abuse and a death sentence by religious and political leaders.  Finally, he suffered the stigma of torture and death as a criminal.  Yet he was raised from the dead and ascended into the Glory of eternal life. That is a pattern which is nearly too much for us to imagine, much less imitate.  Yet as we become one with Christ and God in the unity of the Holy Spirit, it is the pattern with which Christians are brought into community and communion by their incorporation into Christ and their life in him.  The in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit can enable us and give us strength to do what is right, if we desire to listen and be changed.

 

St. Paul is inescapably direct when he says: In the name of the encouragement you owe me in Christ, in the name of the solace that love can give, of fellowship in spirit, compassion, and pity, I beg you, make my joy complete by your unanimity, possessing the one love, united in spirit and ideals. Never act out of rivalries or conceit; rather, be humble – think of others as superior to yourselves, each of you looking to others’ interests rather than your own. Your attitude must be Christ’s attitude.

 

But that is the very attitude we resist. We live on rivalry, we cherish our conceit. Our rarest concern is the other’s good—unless it is hard won through demanding relationships of covenant and trust. Yet, I do not think Paul is talking against honest dialogue, where differences are discussed and reconciled to the good of all.  Paul would not be one who would demand rigid allegiance to a human law or regulation or tradition.  Remember, he was formerly a Pharisee and spend his early life studying the Jewish laws.  That study would have included many debates and heartfelt differences of opinion.   In fact, I think he would expect broad participation in community decision making, including prayer and thoughtful study of scripture and empathy with human needs and human errors.  But he would be opposed to contentious and rowdy yelling matches, where parties demand their own way for the sake of pride.

 

So Paul offers us this hymn to give us a way to internalize this lesson. It is likely the most quoted and memorized portion of this letter, with short rhythmic lines in two parts.  In the first three verses (6-8), Christ is the subject of every verb.  In the last three verses (9-11), God is the subject of every verb.   Paul has added “even death on a cross”, which breaks the rhythm to add emphasis for the completeness of Christ’s humiliation and also added “to the glory of God the Father” to add to the fullness of Christ’s glory.  Notice that the name “Lord” reveals the true nature of Jesus, and the phrase “Jesus Christ is Lord” is an early Christian acclamation, identifying the divinity of Christ.  Finally, every knee shall bend in homage to Christ and everyone shall recognize him as Divine on all levels, “those in heaven, and on earth and under the earth.”

 

Paul adds his own summary in the verses immediately following, which are not part of our missal reading. He says, “So then, my beloved,…work out your salvation with fear and trembling.  For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work… hold onto to the word of life, so that my boast for the day of Christ may be that I did not… labor in vain.”   Let us, too, be in Christ, and so that we will not labor in vain.

 

Justice and Jealousy

25th Sunday Ordinary time, 9-24-17: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm: 144: 2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a; Matthew 20:1-16a

Justice and Jealousy

Our Lectionary has been playing tricks on us. Last week we read from Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel, and now today we have leaped ahead to Chapter 20. Unfortunately, the part we skipped explains why Jesus tells us today’s parable!

But we have some clues. The first reading from Isaiah says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”  Likewise the Psalm says, “The Lord is gracious and merciful… the Lord is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.  The Lord is just in all his ways and holy in all his works.” Also in our Gospel, Jesus begins by saying, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…”  Most of the “kingdom” parables use ordinary events and ordinary people to show us that God’s kingdom is NOT ordinary!

So let’s leap back to chapter 19 and find the disciples trying to keep children away from Jesus, but he declares, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Such as who?  The humble, the powerless, the ones with no “purchasing power”.  Then the rich young man comes and asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. He is told to give away his riches and come with Jesus.  Then there is the infamous Camel and the eye of the needle teaching.  Jesus says it is hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God; but for God, all things are possible.  Many people have struggled with that one!  But doesn’t God offer grace and mercy to ALL people?

Next, Peter asks what reward the apostles will receive for leaving everything and following Jesus. Then Jesus tells this parable of “The Workers in the Vineyard.”  Afterwards, John and James’ mother asks for her sons to be seated at Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom. (She was apparently too busy preparing her request to listen to the parable.)  This results in Jesus teaching about the reversal of kingdom values; those who follow Jesus are to be servants.  The underlying message this entire section of Matthew’s Gospel is that kingdom values are the opposite of this world’s values.  More specifically, the parable is directed against envy, greed, boasting, or any kind of ranking among Jesus’ followers.   Said another way, the last sentence of the reading – the first shall be last and the last shall be first – indicates that human perceptions on ranking are without meaning and will be turned upside down in the kingdom.

On to the parable! Our parable has 4 parts. First, the landowner goes out five times and hires workers.  Second, the landowner pays the workers.  Third, we hear the complaint of unjust wages.  Fourth, we hear the defense of goodness (someone is confused if we must defend goodness). God is the landowner; the workers are the disciples – and all of us. Most humans have at least occasional bouts of bad attitude, envy, desire for special treatment and rewards, which mark them as “above the crowd”.

The apostles, for example, are put out to give mere children access to Jesus, when their unrestricted access to the Famous Teacher marks them as unique. The rich young ruler is unwilling to give up his wealth, which marks him as a person of status and privilege.  Peter wants to make sure that there will be compensation for leaving the comforts of home and his life as a seafood entrepreneur.  Finally, John and James’ mother probably had high hopes for her offspring, and needed to ensure this gig with a wandering rabbi would lead to the rank that was due to such outstanding sons.  Surely God would recognize their superiority!  (She should meet my grandkids.) Someplace here we each find the reasons we buy lottery tickets, enter Publisher’s Clearinghouse contest, and do all the crazy other things we do to “get ahead (of others).”  But while this parable is about the goodness of God, it is not contrasting works and grace, or achievement levels, and is not about God’s extreme generosity.  All the workers receive the usual daily wage, although some worked longer.  But the wage is “the usual”, it is not generous – barely enough for food for the day – and the landowner is, if anything, charitable rather than generous, just trying to see that all have something to eat.

The parable does show that God’s treatment /judgment of people isn’t based on human rankings or human standards of justice. What causes the workers hired first to complain is the comparison of their hourly wages with that of the later hires.  In their eyes, justice is that which gives no one else an advantage; they define justice from a self-centered point of view. Do we define injustice as what happens to our disadvantage, and what is right as what happens to our advantage?  The first hired workers complain, of course, because they are jealous.  Jesus told the rich young ruler, “If you wish to be perfect… sell what you have and give to the poor, then you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”  Is giving to the poor one sign of God’s goodness?

For Jesus, to talk about reward is a way to talk about what pleases God and assure us that following Christ is not fruitless. Clearly, this parable is not theology about reward. In contrast, the disciples were into calculating reward and seeking privilege.  The workers who were hired first thought they would receive more….in comparison to others.  The parable breaks through our ideas of reward and perceptions of what is “right”.  Besides, this parable is not about human effort and salvation.  Rather, just as no one should begrudge a good man who gives to the poor, so no one should begrudge God’s goodness and mercy as if God’s rewards were limited to strict calculation.  Envy and displeasure at someone else’s success is contrary to the kingdom.  Jealousy and all thoughts of ranking or privilege must be jettisoned.

“Justice is enormously important…but it should be redefined…too often we dress up as justice what is in reality jealousy, or use justice as a weapon to limit generosity. It certainly is not to be defined by self-centered interests, but requires positive action seeking the good for all persons, especially the needy.  True justice… seeks mercy and ways to express love.  If the parable is about the goodness of God, then it asks that we give up envy and calculation of reward and, rather, both embrace and imitate God’s goodness.  That means that we give up the quest to be first, knowing that God’s standards are different, that what appears to be first will be last.”*

Stories with Intent, A comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, by Klyne R. Snodgrass, 2008, Eerdmans Publishing Company, pgs 378-379.  This quote and many of the ideas found here are from this excellent book.

Forgiveness – What it is and What it isn’t

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 9-17-17                                                                                   Sirach 27:30-28:7, Ps 103:1-12, Romans 14:7-9, Matthew 18: 21-35

We use the word “forgiveness” at every single Mass. Let’s spend a few minutes talking about what forgiveness is, and is not.

Let’s start with what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not forgetting, like Christians are a group of people with voluntary memory loss.  Forgiveness is not reconciliation.  To reconcile means to establish a friendship or shared understanding of something; to come to agreement.  Forgiveness is not condoning.  When we condone an act, we simply overlook it without protest.  Likewise, forgiveness is not dismissing.  When a court case is dismissed, the legal action is withdrawn and nothing else is done.  Forgiveness is not some vague sort of tolerance.  Tolerance is when we allow or respect something as permissible.  Finally, forgiveness is not pardoning.  When the governor pardons someone in jail, he releases them without further punishment, he excuses their crime.

Most of us, including myself, would have used one or more of these words to define “forgiveness.” But we would have been wrong.  Forgiveness is not about excuses or overlooking or tolerating or withdrawing.  One dictionary definition I like is “to renounce anger or resentment against.”  It is a decision to not carry negative emotion against something some one else did.  It is not a judgment but rather a decision about our own behavior.  It is not something we create, but something we learn from the Spirit of God. Our relationship with God shows us that we can be loved even when we are at our worst.  This discovery is so enormous that we want to pass it on to others.

For starters, forgiveness is gift from God; it is an act of faith.  Two very familiar scriptures might help.  First, is Matthew 18:22, when Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother and, I suspect, tries to appear generous by suggesting 7 times.  Jesus responds, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”  Please understand that the number “7” is the number for complete or finished, or even perfect.  That’s why creation in Genesis is a “7” day event.  Peter thinks if he forgave seven times, it would be perfect.  Jesus tells him that he must multiply his answer by 10, and then add another 7 for even more perfect.  What?  It means infinite, limitless, endless. That must have taken the wind out of Peter’s sail, as it does mine.  Incidentally, that 77 is a direct quote, using the exact same Greek phrase, from Genesis 4: 24, and is referring to limits on revenge against Cain for the murder of his brother.  Jesus is talking about unlimited forgiveness- of a terrible crime. This is what brings peace to our families, our communities, and our world.

The other familiar scripture is the Our Father, Matthew 6: 14-15. “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”   It sends a chill up my spine every time I say it.  It’s very clear.  Can we say, “Of course we are forgiven; Christ’s death on the cross forgave my sins,” and still not forgive others?  There are many Bible verses that respond very clearly to that.  One is Colossians 3: 12-13, “Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy & beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,  bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must do also.”

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful actions a Christian can perform.  The only thing harder than forgiveness – is to not forgive.   To not forgive is like carrying a brick around with you, every day, always, everywhere.   To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then find out that the prisoner is not someone else, but yourself.  And to not forgive tends to grow into something even more ugly.  If we are angry and hold a grudge against one person, we are likely to begin to generalize that anger to other people.  Ethnic hatred and racism, for example, are often based in anger against one individual or event.

We may say we will “try” to forgive people.  Here I need to quote a famous movie character, Yoda, in Star Wars.  Yoda said, “Try not! Do or do not! There is no try!”  When we try, we leave open an expectation of possible failure; better to decide to do.  Forgiveness is not wimpy; instead it tends to be an attribute of strength and confidence.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until we have something to forgive.”   It might be well to look at forgiveness as purposeful commitment or a jouney.  A therapist, when writing about forgiveness, suggested that forgiveness is a long-term plan, and may require a wait 10 or more years before the other party is willing to respond.   He urges people to continue to make regular contract for however long it takes.

The tragedy of the 2006 Amish schoolhouse shooting in Pennsylvania will always be with me. When a man entered a schoolhouse and killed 5 little girls, the Amish families not only offered forgiveness but also food, help and friendship to the shooter’s wife and children.  They did it because they knew the Gospel, not to look good.  They had a firm commitment to obey the Word of God, knowing that, despite the pain and trauma in their lives, it was the right thing to do, and it was that choice that would restore love and peace.  It was a powerful witness to the world.  We also have that choice available to us.

So we can boldly say, “I will show Christ’s love by forgiving those who do not even ask for forgiveness. I will leave fairness and justice in God’s hands.  I will forgive others just as the Lord forgave me.  Today I will give myself the gift of forgiveness. ”  Is there someone I need to forgive?

Church Correction; Growth in Godliness

23rd Sunday Ordinary time, 9-10-17; Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm: 95:1-2, 6-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-2

We have been reading in the 4th section of Matthew, which discusses the Kingdom of God and the Church.  It focuses on the care and respect that believers must have for each other; we must guard each other’s faith with correction, seek out the lost, and forgive each other.  Unfortunately, the lectionary chops up Jesus’ discourse. Let’s take a quick look at the three paragraphs just before our reading so we can be centered in the discussion.

First, the disciples ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus’ response: “Whoever humbles himself like (a) child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  This deflates our egos quickly when we remember what limited value was put on children then, especially girls.  Greatness is not about power or prestige.

Next, Jesus warns the disciples: “Whoever causes one of these little ones (the humble) who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hug around his neck and to be drowned in the…sea.” That image is worth a thousand words.

Just before our reading is the parable of the Lost Sheep. Jesus’ own recap: “It is not the will of our heavenly Father that one of these little (humble) ones be lost.”  You can hear a theme of the value to God of the individual, especially the humble and those of seemingly “Little Value”. There are thousands of “lost” people within a couple of miles of our church! “Lost” can be translated as lacking the necessities of life, or treated as worthless, or as unaware of God’s love.

Today our Gospel reading is about Jesus telling us how to function with each other in a church community. Why? Jesus was Jewish.  They didn’t have churches; they had synagogues and the temple.  Jesus never, at any time recorded in the scriptures, told his followers to start “a church”.  Some theologians suggest that Jesus was beginning to realize that at some time his teachings would cause a separation from the Jewish faith.

Others suggest that the growing antagonism between the followers of Jesus and the Jews was due to other political, social, and economic reasons, along with general human hard-heartedness. Remember that the Jews had several internal sects that were in armed rebellion against Roman rule, and that the Romans, completely fed up with them, destroyed the temple, along with much of Jerusalem in the year 70 c.e.  A lot was going on in the first century, and one part can’t really be separated from the rest of the story.

But we also have evidence that Matthew’s faith community was having the kind of problems that many faith communities have. There were some people doing things that annoyed others, things that were counter to Jewish and/or Christian morals, things that were disruptive, or stole the attention away from the faith.

The teachings we read today are ones that Jesus may have spoken as admonishment to the apostles, and served Matthew’s pastoral needs.  They are based on well-known Jewish scriptures in Leviticus19: 17, “You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow man, do not incur sin because of him.”  Also in Sirach 19:16 “Admonish your neighbor before you break with him; thus will you fulfill the law of the Most High.” Some corporate headquarters did not create this type of process to settle disputes; it’s been around a long time.

Gerald Darring, a long-time Catholic theologian, professor, catechist, and author of many books, has written this better than I can, so I will quote him,                                                       “We are a church, an assembly of people gathered to do the work of God. This work brings us together around the table of the Lord and sends us out to renew the face of the earth.   The task that faces us in the world is awesome, and the obstacles are formidable. The only way we can succeed is by staying together, with Jesus in our midst, and our staying together must involve community efforts to correct our faults. When there is racism or sexism in our church, we must confront them and work to eliminate them. When economic injustice is found…, we must speak out against it and work to eliminate it. When militarism makes its way into the fabric of our community, we must stand up for peace and proclaim the gospel message of nonviolent change. An essential component of … love should be the help (notice he didn’t say “condemnation”) we give each other in overcoming the shortcomings that get in the way of our becoming a universal sacrament of salvation.”

If you have read, “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road”, you know that one of the issues stressed in that book is not the faults of other religions, but the faults and darkness that have made their way into our own belief systems.  It is challenging to look at the history of our religion and the structure of our religious institutions.  If you haven’t read it yet, you still have time.  As CACINA Catholics, many of us have already had to face up to some social teachings and practices of other Christian groups which we had found to lead away from Christ.  Sometimes someone must be asked to leave; at times some of us have had to leave.  The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America’s goal is open discussions as a way to test our beliefs and grow in Godliness.

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.