See. Go. Stay.

2nd Sunday Ordinary time. 1-14-18

1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19; Ps: 40:2, 4, 7-10; 1 Corinthians 6:13-20; John 1:35-42

We begin our readings in the middle of the story of Samuel. Who is Samuel, how does it matter; and why is he sleeping in the temple next to the Ark of God?  The answers are found by returning to the 1st chapter of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament.  Elkanah had two wives, Peninnah, and Hannah.  Peninnah was very proud that she had given Elkanah several children. She purposely teased and taunted Hannah and upset her by bragging about the children.  Hannah was unable to have a child, a cause of social disgrace in that culture. Children were a measure of a woman’s worth.

One day Hannah went into the temple to pray. She was weeping and moving her mouth in silent prayer.  The Priest, Eli, thought she was drunk and scolded her.  She told him that she was not drunk, but upset.  Then Eli blessed her and later she had a son, who she named Samuel. (Hannah’s desire for a child is very like the story of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.) Then Hannah prayed in thanksgiving, saying, “My heart exults in the Lord….I rejoice in thy salvation.  Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.  The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.”  (It is a prayer that is very much like Mary’s Magnificat.)

When he was old enough, Hannah brought Samuel to the temple to stay with Eli, so that Samuel could learn the ways of God and grow up in God’s presence. The Jews of that time believed that the Spirit of God lived in the temple, and filled the Ark of the Covenant.  What better place for the boy to sleep than next to the Ark?

Eli’s sons, who were to succeed him as Priest, were disobedient to God and their father. But we are told that “the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with men.”  (Luke’s Gospel tells us that after the boy Jesus talked with the teachers in the temple, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.”)

When Eli finally understood that God was speaking to Samuel, he taught him to say, “Speak for your servant is listening.”   Those words are carried into our Psalm.   In Psalm 40 we read, “Sacrifice or offerings you wish not, but ears open to obedience you gave me….so I said, “Here I am; your commands for me are written in the scroll.  To do your will is my delight.”  And the Letter to the Hebrews quotes Jesus as reciting this Psalm this way, “I have come to do your will, O God.” John’s Gospel has repeated instances when Jesus listened to God.

So Samuel’s story has elements that are very familiar. The Gospels draw on the stories from Jewish history to give us the message that Jesus was indeed “The One Who was to Come”.  The people who first read these Gospels knew by this that Jesus was the Messiah.

So the 1st reading and the psalm prepare us for the Gospel.  It is like the difference between saying to a child, “Here’s your milk”, and taking a child to a dairy farm, where they can see and touch a cow, hear it moo, and watch as the milk comes from the cow into the tubes to the tanks where it is pasteurized and perhaps chocolate added.  That brings about understanding for the child.  We need an understanding of some of the many ways the Jewish scriptures are not separate, but very connected to the New Testament.  We see patterns that are not yet complete, and we have a sense of anticipation about the message of Jesus, the Messiah.

John the Baptist heard the message, and he foretold the coming of the Messiah. He did the will of God when he baptized Jesus and proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”  The next day, where our reading picks up, he said it again.  It initiates a chain reaction which changed the course of history.  Two of John’s disciples heard him, Andrew and John (we think), and they immediately followed Jesus.   It must have been a scene permanently engraved in John’s memory, because he even records the time of day.  The implication is that staying that long with Jesus is a sign that the men were dedicated to remain with Jesus.  From there, the excitement spread to Peter and beyond.

This is different from the calling of the disciples in the Gospel of Luke. Remember, John is not writing to preserve a step-by-step historical record of the events as our culture might expect.  John is instead writing to explain who Jesus was, to reveal the character and motive of Jesus’ ministry and purpose.  Still, John’s rendering of his joining Jesus at this time is supported by Peter’s remark in Acts 2:21-22.  Peter wants to fill Judas’ place with someone “who accompanied us beginning from the baptism of John.”

The verb “follow” and the directive “follow me” appear 4 times in 6 verses, and many other times in the Gospels, don’t mean to just to walk along with. It is a much deeper connection.  Notice that Jesus initiates the conversation.  Jesus has come to earth to save the lost.  Jesus does not hesitate to get to the heart of the issue; he asks, “What are you looking for?”  These men would not have been disciples of John the Baptist if they had not been seeking a fuller life with God – something deeper than just living and then dying.  “Where are you staying?” is a desire to know Jesus fully. His response, “Come, and you will see” conveys that he is open to their questions and offering a challenge to their faith.

This scene introduces us to many of John’s key words. “Coming” to Jesus is to have faith; “seeing” Jesus is to understand his message. As Fr. Raymond Brown, one of the primary authorities on John, puts it, “If the training of the disciples begins when they go to Jesus to see where he is staying and stay on (abide) with him, it will be completed when they see his glory and believe in him.” All this adds to our understanding of the scriptures.

But what do we do with it on Monday?  Fr. John Pilch writes that this gives us a highly successful pattern for telling others about Jesus: (1) A believer in Jesus (John the Baptist) tells someone (his disciples) about Jesus and (2) he uses a special title of Jesus (“Lamb of God”). (3) The believer shows that person Jesus (in acts or words). (4) Jesus then calls the newcomer and brings them to faith.

We, then, are to live honest and true lives for all to see. When people ask us why we act this way, we can share our faith. When people around us get discouraged or mired in bad choices and we respond with compassion, or when we are generous to those in need, we give people who watch us reason to believe what we say. When we are in conversation, opportunities arise to explain why we go to church and believe in God. We can speak of our faith with confidence and pride, and answer questions about our beliefs. The Holy Spirit will intervene with a gift of understanding and love.   This has always been the primary way of sharing faith, person to person, and will likely remain the primary way for Christianity to thrive and flourish. Someone tells us, we go to Jesus, see where he is, and stay with him to see his glory.

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Building Houses & Keeping Promises

4th Sunday Advent 12-24-17

2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Ps: 89:2-3, 4-5, 27-29; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

 

I raised my children in a small town in upstate New York.  The town promotes itself as “historic”, meaning that history is about all that’s left – no industry, and only a few stores.  When my middle son finished high school, a job as a janitor at the elementary school opened, and he saw that as his only chance for a steady job with benefits.  But God had not made this young man to be a janitor.  Not that I have anything but respect and admiration for school janitors, but it wasn’t the right job for him.  And that Christmas, my cousin gave him a miracle in the form of a Radio Shack TSR-80 home computer.  My son was re-born as a highly respected “IT guy”.

Our first reading today is about King David. One day, King David had a chance to take a breath from the large military campaigns which had made Israel safe from hostile neighbors.  David realized he was living in a “cedar palace” while the Ark of the Covenant and the place where the nation worshiped God was still in a tent, just as it had been since his ancestors fled Egypt.  He began to make plans to build a house for God.  But God had not meant David to be a house builder.  Not that God has anything but respect and admiration for builders, but that wasn’t the right job for David.

So God would take care of the building, by having one of David’s sons- Solomon- build a magnificent Temple.  God had another role for David.  It would be another sort of “house”.  My own father still used the term “house” to describe his lineage, his ancestors. God’s gift to King David was to be the beginning of long line of Kings, what we might call a “dynasty”, a traceable line of names and history, leading to the long-awaited Messiah, the savior of God’s people.  Matthew’s Gospel spells out those 28 generations from David to Jesus to make the point clear.

The other problem with David building a “house” or temple for God was that David had missed an important lesson about his relationship with God. David was thinking like a King who built loyalty with his staff and soldiers was by rewarding them with power and prestige.  God had no use for David’s rewards.  God reminds David that when the prophet Samuel anointed David as King, David was a young man who spent his days guarding sheep.  God had made David a King who guarded God’s people.  God was the reason for David’s military success.  God was the reason that Israel was enjoying peace.   God had been with David in every circumstance, in every location, in the fields and in the palace.  God is greater than any building; God is not defined by space or décor, by canvas or cedar.  Buildings weather and decay, but God’s blessings are eternal.

The Psalms, many of which were traditionally attributed to David, stress one of the other themes which build during Advent: the promises of God, specifically the fulfillment of God’s promises. Thru the centuries, those promises remain alive and, in God’s time, they are fulfilled and renewed.  Today’s Psalm says, “I will sing forever of the promises of the Lord…my mouth will proclaim (God’s) faithfulness.” (God) had made a covenant with…(David)..(God) will …establish David’s throne for all generations.”  The House of David remains with us today as Jesus our Lord and Savior.

The 2nd reading, from the Letter to the Church at Rome, frames this idea differently.   King David most likely thought of God’s promise of his dynasty, his lineage, in terms of an earthly throne.  The full implications were not known to him.  The Gospel of Jesus that Paul had been preaching is referred to here as a “mystery.” Saint Paul lived in a time when people were just beginning to sort out the message and full implications of the birth of Jesus, his life and teaching, his crucifixion and resurrection.  Believers were starting to made sense of how those promises had been fulfilled.  The mystery of God’s promises continues to open to each new generation and each new believer as they consider their own lives and their own relationship to God. We find that we are part of the promise – we live in a particular part of the revelation of the mystery. We have been woven into the very fiber of the building of the Kingdom.

The angel Gabriel brought to Mary a mystery that at first was troubling, even the cause of fear. It was a mystery that the child could be divine, yet born as a human child.  The child she would conceive by the power of God and the Holy Spirit will be given the “throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary’s child fulfilled the promise to King David.

Neither King David, nor St. Paul, nor Mary expected God to fulfill the promise in the way that it actually happened.  They each had their own expectations.  Yet each of them willingly moved forward in faith and trust. They struggled against fear and opposition, against seemingly unconquerable difficulties and, yes, danger…in the full knowledge that God was with them and that God’s plan, however mysterious or obscure, was best.  They were able to do that because they knew God kept his promises.

Christmas is a time of miracles and joy. Now we will once again experience the thrill of the gift of this ancient promise.  Even 2000+ years after the historical event, even before we fully grasp the how and where and why, we feel the thrill of something that changes our lives in that tiny child.  King David and St. Paul and the Blessed Virgin Mary all chose to open their hearts, and their lives, to the mystery – to be personally part of a great miracle of love for every human being who has lived or will live.  As we move from Advent to Christmas, we enter a time when past, present and future come together.

Luke 1: 46-55 – Mary’s Song of Praise/ The Canticle of Mary/ The Magnificat

3rd Sunday of Advent – December 17, 2017

46 And Mary said, ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord                                         47  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,                                                                             48 for he has looked upon his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed;                                                                                                                                                  49  the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.                                 50 He has  mercy on those who fear him in every generation.                                                      51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.                                                                                                                                     52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;        53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.      54 He has come to the help of his servant Israel,                                                                             55 for he has remembered his promise of mercy to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

This week we have a special reading as the Psalm. Much of it, in fact, comes from the Psalms.  Some say that the Magnificat could not have been spoken by a young Jewish woman in the first century. Sometimes our pride in our literacy hides treasures from our eyes.  I suggest we set aside our judgment, born of our own moment in time.  We must view the Magnificat from a time when many, if not most, people routinely learned long quotations from Scripture in the absence of being able to read. Having memorized it, they meditated on it, turning it over and over in their minds; it became part of who they were and how they lived. We, on the other hand, tend to read but not remember; we hear but do not listen.  We say the words but our understanding does not grow.

Just for a few moments, immerse yourself in this incredible poetic outcry that most certainly was formed with the help of the Holy Spirit. I want to show you where the Magnificat verses came from and the enormous power that is embedded in them.

The Magnificat is a blend of multiple references from the Old Testament Scriptures listed below and many others. It was profoundly different from the social order of the day and could have been considered to be anarchy or treason against the government.  It was, at that time, considered to be what we might call extremely “leftist”, or “socialist”.  It seems to advocate for the upheaval of government, and threatens those in power.  It portrays God as being on the side of the poor, the hungry and the helpless – those called “a burden on society”.  God will take from those filled with greed and self-worship and give to those clinging to faith.  There is a message that class structure- however disguised or justified-will be reversed. It is, in a word, revolutionary in the classic sense. Above all it underlines that God will fulfill the promises we find in the Scriptures.

It has been described as a song of thanksgiving for the immense graces given in salvation; a song of the poor whose hope is met only as God fulfills those promises. But we cannot ignore that it reminds us that salvation will bring a world with structure very unlike past or present governments and, too often, even the church.   Consider that Luke put these powerful verses in the mouth of a very amazing woman of great faith and purity of heart who is frequently portrayed as “meek and mild”!

 

Verse 46– Psalm 35, 9: “Then I will rejoice in the Lord, exult in God’s Salvation.”      Isaiah 61, 10: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice.”

Verse 47 – Psalm 34, 1-3: “I will bless the Lord at all times… My soul shall make its boast in the Lord; the humble shall hear it and rejoice… let us exalt His name together.”

Verse 48 – 1 Samuel 1, 11: “O Lord of hosts, if you look with pity on the misery of your servant, if you remember me and do not forget me…” Psalm 113, 7: “The Lord raises the needy from the dust, lifts the poor from the ash heap…” Psalm 138, 6: “For though the Lord is exalted, yet he regards the lowly; but the haughty he knows from afar.”

Verse 49 – Psalm 71, 19: “…that I may proclaim your might to all generations yet to come, your power and justice, God, to the highest heaven. You have done great things…”  Psalm 111, 9: “You have sent deliverance to your people…and awesome is your name.”  Psalm 126, 2-3: “It was said, ‘The Lord has done great things for them’.”

Verse 50 – Psalm 103, 13 &17: “…so the Lord has compassion on the faithful. But the Lord’s kindness is forever, toward the faithful from age to age.”

Verse 51 – Psalm 118, 15: “The Lord’s right hand strikes with power; the Lord’s right hand is raised…” Jeremiah 32, 17: “Ah, Lord God, you have made heaven and earth by your great might, with your outstretched arm; nothing is impossible to you.”  Isaiah 40, 10:  “Behold, the Lord God will come with might, with his arm ruling for him.”

Verse 52 – Isaiah 2, 11 &12: “The haughty eyes of man will be lowered, the arrogance of men will be abased, and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day. For the Lord of hosts will have his day against all that is proud and arrogant… and it will be brought low.” 2 Samuel 22, 28: “You save lowly people, though on the lofty your eyes look down.”  Job 5, 11: “He sets up on high the lowly…”  Job 12, 18 & 19: “He loosens the bonds imposed by kings, and binds a waistcloth on their loins (like a slave).  He leads counselors (priests) away barefoot and overthrows the mighty.”  Psalm 147, 6: “The Lord sustains the poor, but casts the wicked to the ground.” Sirach 10, 14: “God overturns the thrones of the arrogant and establishes the lowly in their place.”

Verse 53 – 1 Samuel 2:4 & 5: “The bows of the mighty are broken, while the tottering gird on strength. The well-fed hire themselves out for bread, while the hungry thrive on spoil.” Psalm 107, 9: “For he satisfied the thirsty, filled the hungry with good things.”

Verse 54 – Psalm 98, 3: “The Lord has remembered faithful love toward the house of Israel.”  Isaiah 41, 8-10: “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, offspring of Abraham my friend – You… whom I have chosen and will not cast off – fear not, I am with you…”

Verse 55 –Psalm 105, 8-9: God is mindful of his covenant for ever, the covenant which he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac… Micah 7, 20:  “You will show faithfulness to Jacob, and grace to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from days of old.”

Big Bucks and a Great Big Job

33rd Sunday Ordinary time 11-19-17

Proverbs 31:10-13; 19-20, 30-31, Ps: 128:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6;

Matthew 25:14-30

We begin our Gospel reading with the verse immediately after where we left off last week after the parable about the ten young women waiting for a bridegroom. 5 women ran out of oil for their lamps. While they were away buying oil, the bridegroom came and locked them out of the wedding celebration. They failed to be prepared.

As Fr. Joe told us, this parable was not about weddings, but about the last days, the end times, the 2nd coming of Jesus. And the lamps are not about oil or energizer bunny batteries, but about being prepared for the inevitable judgment that is part of the end times. We’re more apt to say something like, “Get your lights on”, meaning to understand what needs to be done, and to make sure our faith and our behavior line up. We are talking about being tuned into God (prayer), staying tight with our faith (worship), and using the life teaching app Jesus left us (the Bible).

So we must again look at today’s Gospel and interpret it through the lens of last days and end times. This is again not about money, or interest rates. The Greek talanton was a huge monetary unit of silver coinage worth about the same as the lifetime earnings of a Palestinian laborer. Parables often use exaggeration to make the lesson more obvious, but the fact that the first servant was given 5 talantons should tip you off right away that whatever we are talking about is of great value, perhaps even something that cannot be bought or sold. Also notice the master is entrusting his property to the servants, very valuable property. The master is taking great risk and his high expectations are clear.

The other important piece is the setting of this parable. This takes place after Palm Sunday. It is two days before Passover. Judas is about to begin his negotiations with the Chief priests to betray Jesus. This is Jesus’ last major teaching to his followers. He has already told them that he will be crucified. He, like the master in the parable, is going away, for a long time. What valuable property is Jesus entrusting to his disciples? He’s given them the message of the kingdom. What a privilege it must have been to hear it from Jesus, yet it also was a great responsibility. Those who hear it are accountable for continuing to share the message as Jesus gave it to them. It is a message that makes any amount of money seem insignificant, and the expectation is enormous.

So what does Jesus give each one of us? Breath, life itself, forgiveness, love, mercy, grace, unselfish love; companionship, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, free will, birds, flowers, our food growing in the fields, and the riches of the earth! We could continue to add to the list all day. And what does he ask us, his servants, to do? Well, we are to be responsible for the church, for living and sharing the Good News we have heard. We are to join together in community, encouraging one another and embracing the needy, the hopeless, the sick, and those imprisoned in bad choices. We are to “handle these accounts” for him until he returns. It is a huge responsibility, even more than those large sums of money. The servants who doubled the master’s money were praised. The master says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant…Come share your master’s joy.”

What will earn us praise? What is it like to be responsible for the church? Jesus is not suggesting the church should remain as it was. Pope John XXIII said: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.” The apostles knew that the church was not to be buried in a “safe” place.
That sounds like what the 3rd servant did, who just kept the money he was given safe. It did not grow. He did it alone, without going to any bankers or fellow servants to guide him. He just, well, did nothing; life as usual. But his response to the master gives him away. He says he knew his master’s expectations and he was afraid. Given the master’s reaction to the other 2 servants, I have to question if he really knew his master at all.

He reminds me of people I meet. They say they know what Jesus taught, that they understand the expectations of love and generosity, yet somehow they remain unmotivated to be productive or get help changing their life, and they continue on, disobeying the master, somehow thinking that handing back the money would be enough. Did your math teacher give you a passing grade when you had not learned anything? Does the mortgage get paid when you have not earned anything? No; and there are consequences. The 3rd servant found this out. He lost his job and his home, and suffered in remorse. He was bound by fear of loss, and loss was the result.

But we just talked about St. Paul’s 2nd missionary journey; that demonstrated that Paul was often not safe, worked hard sometimes for little gain, but always rebounded to move on and share the Good News of Jesus and the resurrection. He taught the scriptures unceasingly, he created faith communities all over Asia Minor, and his letters created a network of Christians. He took enormous risks, with no regrets. He wrote, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for at the proper time, we shall reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Gal 6:9)

Are you willing to take risks for the Gospel, or are you paralyzed by fear? If you were a leader in the Church, what kind of risks would you take to insure growth of the faithful? Let those questions perk in your mind, for we will come back to them another day. The intent of this parable is to urge us to be faithful in our obedience to the Gospel until Jesus returns. The idea of stewardship derives its importance from the importance of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom. The parable’s harsh ending of judgment and punishment is not necessarily a realistic description of divine judgment, but it serves to warn us and shock us into thoughtfully considering how we invest ourselves in the growth of the Kingdom.

Stay tuned: next week will be the last Sunday of the church year, and Jesus will finish his “last days” homily, which includes more specifics of his expectations and how to meet them.

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.

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.