Faith and Anguish Will Meet

19th Sunday Ordinary time, 8-13-17; 1 Kings 19:9a-13a; Ps 85; Rom 9:1-5; Matt 14:22-33.

As I read these scriptures this week, a single word stood out: “Anguish.” This week is a counterpoint to last week’s glorious Transfiguration.  Paul uses the word “Anguish” in our reading from his Letter to the Romans.  As you probably know, Paul was a Jewish Pharisee before he converted to “The Way” of Jesus and became an evangelist of the Good News.  Paul is thinking about “the great sorrow and constant anguish” in his heart for the Jews, his people.  Their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Savior was tragic.  It was the Jews who had watchfully awaited the Messiah, who had passed the expectation from generation to generation.  It was the Jews who had been given the law and commandments; the Jews who had made the covenant with God, and it was from the line of David that Jesus was born.  While Paul offers praise to God for this marvelous gift of the Messiah, he does it with a heavy heart.

Elijah’s heart was more anguished than Paul’s. Elijah had the kind of stress that can kill people.  When Ahab had become King of Israel, “he did more to anger God than any of the other kings of Israel before him” (1Kings 16:33).  He worshiped idols and he built altars to them. His wife, Jezebel, focused killing all the prophets of God, particularly Elijah.  Finally, Elijah went to King Ahab and demanded a showdown.  It was Elijah for God vs. 450 prophets for the idols.  Each side built an altar and called for fire to come down and consume a sacrifice.  The prophets of the idols called out, danced, and cut themselves with knifes for hours to no effect.  Elijah flooded his altar with water, said a short prayer, and fire came down and consumed the sacrifice, the water, the wood, even the stones.  Then he ran.

For a full day, Elijah fled from Jezebel’s wrath, until he collapsed in fear, exhaustion, and anguish over the entire situation. He prayed for death to take him.  Instead, an angel provided food for him until he was able to continue to the mountains.  God asked him why he was in hiding.  Elijah responded, “I have given everything I had, and more, for you, God.  But the people have turned away from you, your places of worship have been destroyed, and all your prophets are dead.  I am alone and there is nothing else I can do.”  That is the voice of anguish.  God arrives with a “tiny whispering sound”, the gentleness we need when we are in such emotional pain.  God protects Elijah, has him anoint a new king and a new prophet, and then brings Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind on a flaming chariot.

Even our Psalm today is a lament. The people are in anguish, feeling abandoned by God and afraid God will be angry with them forever.  They want God’s love and glory to return.  They imagine kindness and truth meeting.  When someone asks if their new clothes make them look fat, we find that kindness and truth do not always meet.  Truth does not always spring from us on earth, and we would often prefer mercy rather than justice from heaven.  Being holy people is difficult.

So, we move to the Gospel, and things aren’t going very well there, either.   Jesus has just heard the news that his dear cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod as part of an obscene power-play at an outlandish party!  It was just too revolting and horrendous, and Jesus withdrew to a quiet place by himself in grief.  But people continued to seek him out, and a crowd of some 5,000 people gathered, begging for healing and needing food.  Setting aside his own anguish over John, he attended to their needs.  Afterward, still needing time to himself, he sends the disciples ahead in the boat, and Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.

Jesus walking on water is one of the beloved stories of the faith, and I’m sure you know it. A heavy storm broke over the lake.  Jesus, knowing, that the disciples’ faith was still as little as a new-born baby, goes to them.  They are so panicked, so anguished, that they react even to Jesus with fear and doubt.  There it is again, “Do not be afraid.”  If I ever get a tattoo, that’s what it should be.  As Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat, the disciples worship him as The Divine One he is.

What did we learn?

1. We all have to rely on God, especially when it seems that evil or tragedy has the upper hand. Elijah shows us that trust is not just a sheer act of the will, not simply a blind decision, but a quiet emergence of God’s faithful love. Faith works best when we don’t confuse it with our own powers or efforts.

2. Like Paul, every Christian experiences anguish because our failures and our experiences can seem so hard to reconcile with the promises of God. Yet those promises are eternal. Our faith has its ups and downs and it is often very difficult to see our life in the big picture.

3. “Lord, let us see your kindness”, our Psalmist said. Let us see God’s kindness in all the people who follow God, carrying their crosses of daily sacrifice and suffering.

4. Knowing that Jesus experienced loss and grief, we know he will not abandon us. We too can be healed by time spent with God in prayer and meditation. After getting back into the boat, Peter would have told us that sometimes Jesus will calm the storm, and sometimes Jesus will calm you in the storm. But we are never beyond God’s reach and never have too little faith to call out to him, for God is with us.

 

Lights, Sounds, Visions: Transfiguration

Transfiguration 8-6-17

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Ps: 97:1-2, 5-6, 9; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Matthew 17:1-9

In 2017, Americans are not ones to talk about visions. In fact, if someone even talks about a dream they had, it seems kind of odd.  We like scary books, we like science fiction, and we like our movies loaded with special effects.  But when we mention visions, or the mystical, or we mention a Saint who had visions, someone inevitably rolls their eyes or starts making woo-oo sounds, like a silly old ghost movie.

Our Gospel today has that one little word that I never really noticed before, and hadn’t really taken into account. The last sentence was Jesus saying, “Don’t tell the VISION to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

I can’t think of ever hearing a homily that didn’t treat the Transfiguration as an actual event, the kind of thing you could calendar, google a map for. For sure, Matthew collected every bit of symbolism he could from traditional sources. Examples: the mountain (being higher up makes you closer to God- mountains are almost always the site of important theological events); brilliant lights and white garments (found in most near-death experiences); overshadowing cloud (protecting you from seeing God).  Of course, Moses is the symbol of the Law, while Elijah is the prophet of all prophets.  There are 3 apostles, symbol of the divine Trinity, and a repeat of the voice of God from when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.  Peter suggests 3 booths, or tents, to bring Jewish liturgy of the Feast of Tabernacles in to the mix, recalling the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.  You can find all this and more in Matthew 26:37, Exodus 24: 12-18, 1 Kings 19: 8-18, Daniel 10:6, Revelations 4 and 9, Leviticus 23: 39-42, Matthew 3: 17, Deuteronomy 18: 15, Daniel 10: 9-19, as well as in historic Jewish writings on the Last Days which were not included in the Old Testament.

I think it is crucial that we are able to accept that some religious experiences are not the same as “normal” every day life. Perfectly sane and stable people have visions, which are a way for the brain to interpret events and facts beyond their imagination in ways they can relate to.   It is really important to not expect that the Bible gives us a detailed video-style account in every passage.  The Gospel writers, like Matthew, had a purpose for writing – to record the oral history of Jesus as the eyewitnesses died out AND give us certainty for our faith.  The object as stated in our second reading, is to let us know that Jesus was not a “cleverly devised myth”, but real, and the Christian message is “altogether reliable.”

So our primary job is to determine the message the Gospel writer wants to give us. Just from the words used to describe the scene, I think it is fair to say that Matthew wants us to know that while Jesus was a humble itinerant Jewish preacher to his contemporaries, Jesus is also the Son of God; his teachings are divine wisdom, and his miracles are acts of God.  Also, since Matthew has placed the Transfiguration in between Jesus’ 1st and 2nd predictions of his suffering, death and resurrection, we need to take special care to view those events in the light of Jesus’ divinity and God’s plan for his people.

By extension, the crucifixion is not shameful, but instead becomes a divine gift and an entryway to holiness for all people who are fully aware of their sins, their un-retractable actions of hurt and pain to others, their crimes and failings. Crucifixion was supposed to put an end to the idea that the actions and teachings of this unique and charismatic teacher could be implemented.  Crucifixion was designed as a powerful barrier to following Jesus’ teachings.

But now all can draw strength and courage from his suffering and death. The Transfiguration would be that vision that would be forever burned in the memory of all as God-given proof of who Jesus was and what he had done for us.  Matthew presents it as the pivotal point of change in lives and attitudes.

Jesus, then, has foretold his resurrection, and dies making clear that death itself has been overcome. If Jesus had such confidence in God’s desire and ability to turn senseless violence and suffering into triumph, then why should anyone else fear to follow his footsteps?

The Transfiguration is so very much “not normal”; it is so very much designed to startle us and get our attention. It is like a gigantic heavenly spotlight, giving us light, sound, and visuals; we get a clear view of who Jesus is. It sets our understanding straight.  St. Peter’s letter makes a point of testifying to the power and coming of Jesus as real; His majesty and divinity are real.  Those moments of seeing Jesus in Glory were designed to provide confirmation, certainty, hope and proof.  God has the last word: Listen to him!

Homily August 6, 2017 the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord

trans 4Today’s gospel of the Transfiguration is from Matthew. Luke’s account is read in reading cycle 3 in Lent leading up to Christ’s passion. We also see today in the second from 2 Peter that the author writing in the tradition of Peter gives an eyewitness account to “this is my Beloved Son”. Why Jesus chose just three of his Apostles is not completely clear, but in some way he was preparing them for what was to come. The meeting with Moses and trans 3Elijah was very significant because of their place and importance in the history of the Jews. Jesus shining face was alluding to His place and his coming ascension to the Father. The idea of visions was not unknown in the Jewish tradition. The fear of the Apostles, we see assuaged by Jesus plus his charge to keep the whole thing secret for the time being.

For us, I think we can see as we look at all three readings that we are looking at Christ and our savior teacher and also as the resurrected-ascended Son of God. Clearly, it is a celebration of our faith and an affirmation of Jesus and his teaching us the way. It is another way of affirming: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.”

Cash, Kings and Kingdoms

17th Sunday Ordinary time, 7-30-17 , at a 1st Cmmunion

1 Kings 3:5-12;Psm: 119:57, 72, 76-77,27-128, 129-130; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44 -46

I’d like to ask you all a question. If you were walking down a sidewalk, and you saw a penny on that sidewalk, what would you do?  It’s just a penny, not even a shinny one, which really won’t buy anything.  How many of you would stop and pick it up, raise your hand?  Let’s go all the way with this.  What, instead of a penny, you saw a $100 bill, just there on the sidewalk, and people just walking around it.  How many of you would you pick it up?

What’s the difference between a penny and a $100 bill? They’re both money, but the bill is worth a lot more.  It has more value.  I can think of a lot of things I can get with a $100.  For a few minutes, anyway, it makes me feel kind of rich.  I could go to a fancy restaurant and get a lobster dinner, and even have desert!  I could buy new clothes, or a game.  Even after I had spent it all, I’d still feel like I’d had a really great day.

In our first reading, King Solomon dreamed about God asking him, if he could have anything he asked for, what would it be? Hmm, that could be a really hard choice.  What to ask for??  Solomon had an answer.  He said to God, “You made me a King over a big country, with lots of people.  I don’t know how to be a good king.  Make me wise, that’s what I want.  Help me know right from wrong, and help me understand how to make good decisions for all these people.”  Well, God was very happy with what Solomon asked for.  God replied, “I will make you so wise and so understanding, that there will never be anyone else as wise as you. And that’s not all –   I will make you rich and powerful, too, even though you didn’t ask for that.” Being wise is more valuable than money!

Then we have the stories that Jesus told about two men who found something very valuable. One man found buried treasure in a field, probably lots of gold.  Another man found a beautiful special pearl.  The men thought, “WOW!  What fantastic treasure and WOW!  There will never be another pearl as beautiful as this one.”  But they weren’t rich men, and they had to sell every single thing they owned to buy the field with the treasure and to buy the perfect pearl.

You might think that they would be sad to sell everything they had. But oh no, they were so happy, so filled with joy, they couldn’t stop smiling and they couldn’t stop yelling, “Yahoo.”

Why did Jesus tell these stories? Jesus started the stories by saying, “The Kingdom of heaven is like…”  Jesus is giving us clues, hints, little ideas about God.  What is God’s kingdom like?  It’s a very good question to ask this special day when Tyler takes communion with us for the very first time, because taking communion is one way to start being part of God’s kingdom.  God’s kingdom isn’t a country, or a castle that we can drive to. We need to know more.

We know that being with God and learning to be more like God is very important, very valuable, more important and valuable than anything else we ever do or that we ever have. If you are wise like Solomon, you want to get to know God and love people like God does. You can’t buy the Kingdom of God, but God’s kingdom is so very much better than we can even imagine.  When we are in God’s kingdom, the Bible says, there will be no more sadness, no more crying, no more pain.  Being with God means being full of love and joy, for ourselves, for others, and for God.  Fear and worry will be forgotten.

But the part I like most about the Kingdom of Heaven is that it is already beginning.  The Kingdom of Heaven even now breaks through the bad times like sun breaks through the clouds after the rain.  How does the Kingdom come?  Well, we are part of it.  Remember that $100 dollar bill?  If you bought food with that $100 for people who were hungry and had no money, then you could show them a little bit of what God is like.  When you are kind to someone who is sad or scared, then they see a little bit of God.  When you pray to God about your needs and your problems, there’s more God.  When you read your Bible, more God.  As we love God more, we find God more valuable than any treasure, any pearl, or anything else.  We welcome you, Tyler, to be part of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

 

The Weed Problem

16th Sunday, 7-23-17

Wis 12:13, 16-19; Ps: 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Romans 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-44

 

It couldn’t wait any longer. My hair had grown out, and was on the verge of going completely wild.  It was time to go see my favorite stylist.  She’s in her thirties, rather conservative in her dress and behavior.  We don’t discuss religion or politics.  Somehow though, she slipped single sentence into our carefully benign conversation about her brother who was a heroin addict, and now in prison.  “We won’t go into that”, she said softly.

But suddenly, with great need to tell the story, she was sharing with me the details of her brother’s descent into darkness. Nice guy with the usual amount of youthful immortality and desire for a social group.  He was a highly trained and skillful pastry chef. Tried drugs along with most the other people he worked with.  Arrest. Rehab. Overdose…. 2nd Arrest…retraining to be away from the drug infestation in the food industry.  One semester away from a Master’s Degree.  Slipped.  Needed money, sold drugs, used drugs, arrested and convicted for his third felony drug charge.  Now he must attend classes every day for 18 months in prison.  Then be in impatient rehab for 3 years.  Then half-way house for 2 more years and find employment.  Then parole, never allowed a single bad drug test or one missed appointment.  Failure means a 25 year prison sentence – losing most of his adult life.

If Jesus was here today, he might tell this sad story instead of using an agricultural example of wheat and weeds. Weeds, Jesus said, were planted by the evil one.   Illegal drugs are, no pun intended, one of the weeds of our time.  When evil entered our world, the problem was not just with one woman and one man and one tree with apples on it.  The problem was that people began to disobey, to choose badly, to do what was wrong while still knowing and wanting what was right.  Drugs, those fiercely invasive and destructive weeds, make the apple incident look like forgetting to pay the electric bill on time and facing a small late charge.

Oddly enough, self monitoring has never worked well.  We ignore or excuse our own bad behavior and loudly proclaim and condemn the wrong others do. We spend billions on weapons and guns and rockets and ammunition to kill and destroy, and yet manage to find reasons, which I don’t quite get, why God should bless us for this.  Politicians and press of all stripes work to convince us who is an enemy and who is our friend.  Most of us, in return, say we have too little time to verify their statements and moan about our “helplessness” in changing things.

Maybe you have had the same experiences as I have. I watch the evening news or read a newspaper or an on-line news article and wonder.   I wish I could stop this insanity.  I wish I could stop Christianity from being an excuse or even a silent bystander to this evil.  I wish I could make my own little life clean and pure or even brave enough to make changes in my own little garden of weeds growing in my heart.  I would get right in there with a hoe, I would yank those weeds out so fast, that garden would be clean and I would plant good seed to feed the needy!  But that is not reality.  That is a fantasy that leads right back to where we started, for evil is still here, with weeds and drugs and lots of other bad things that look pretty desirable sometimes.

What does this parable suggest we do? Well, Jesus, like the wise man who sowed the wheat, seems amazingly patient with us weedy-garden-hearted people.  Don’t tear out the weeds, for if you do, you will damage the crop that you rely on for food.  Be gentle as possible with those who are struggling with evil. Start with yourself and forgive yourself for the times a little meanness comes out of your mouth, or a little greed seizes your check book.  Then move onto the addicts.  It takes money, it takes –dare I say it- health insurance to get help with addictions, it takes lots of dedicated practitioners, of which we have far too few.  It takes employers with zero tolerance for drugs in the work place but willingness to employ those who are rebuilding their lives.  It takes treatment facilities, maybe in our own neighborhoods.  In short it takes a commitment to focus on re-building a gentler world, and we need to love and forgive our selves and our churches and our society for pretending the causes of addiction can be fixed by just saying “no”.

Where to start? By proclaiming the love and faithfulness of God, the forgiveness of God? There is enormous power in the Gospel and the Christian story.  By the courage to realize our own wheat crops aren’t in very good shape, either?  By acknowledging that there is no us (holy) and them (evil)?  By admitting that judgmental assumptions are bad behavior?  If I read this Gospel correctly, the harvesters are God’s angels, and they will sort the good and the bad correctly.  Good news: we can take judging people off our to-do list!  Yes!

I learned a hard lesson once, many years ago.  I had a minor car accident, and was unable to get my car back on the road.  I had been ill, and I was coming back from a doctor’s appointment.   I was stuck and had no resources to help myself.  Who helped me?  A young immigrant man who spoke no English, who had no job, who I had seen loitering around a business of bad reputation- he helped me.  I would not have spoken to him in other circumstances.  For all I know, he was an angle, sent by God to open my eyes.  It made me think of Jesus, close to death on the cross, offering eternal life to the men on either side of him, who admitted to “deserving” their terrible death.  And I knew then that I too am capable of the bitingly sarcastic response of the one who jeered Jesus.

So, what’s the take-away? First, I am so very proud of everyone who has been part of the effort to supply food for the children at our local Elementary School.  I get tingles down my spine when I think of the extra effort the fine people of Holy Trinity made to supply treats for the end-of-school-celebration there in June.  I smile when I remember the gift cards you purchased to reward the children.  Well Done.  Those kids may live in weedy circumstances, and you offered them love without judgment.

Last, there are those who will never choose God, it would seem. I might be wrong about that.  I suspect I’m pretty blind to my own weedy-ness at times. But I think that most people would like to live good lives. I’m sure the power of Love is always and drastically underrated.  I am absolutely positive that God is always ready to forgive us for being weedy, either a little or a lot, and that Love, not Round-up herbicide, is the way of God.

Homily July 23, 2017 the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

16sun5The parable of the wheat and weeds like the parable of the sower last week has an allegorical interpretation added to it at the end. If we put aside the interpretation, we can most likely see the parable as Jesus spoke it. What then is the point of the farmer asking to let the 16 sun 1weed and wheat grow together? It would seem that in the context of the gospel, the parable was probably a warning about judgment. A warning to church leaders to step back and let men live and grow together, letting God be the judge at some final time. It is not the role of any man to sit in judgment of others. Each of us is but one small part of creation with our 16 sun2own growth and potential. It is a reason for mentioning the mustard seed, the smallest of seeds producing the largest plant, or the yeast that makes flour rise for the baker. All things need time to grow and develop and jumping to conclusions or being too quick to settle our sights or judgments might in the end be contrary to our call and mission and doing a disservice to our fellow Christians. God is 16sun3the one to judge. Remember, Jesus taught about relationships and love and forgiveness and mercy toward each other. His church was for him a community of women and men serving and loving each other. The disputes and turmoil and judgments of the early community led to some discussions and lessons about judging, most likely over the questions of the gentiles entering the church. Unfortunately, it seems to have become a lesson for the ages as in one way or another we all seem to be quick sometimes to judge.